Williamstown Theatre Festival
On through 26 August
As the summer festivals finish up and the back-to-school shopping begins, we took a weekend excursion up to scenic Williamstown, Massachusetts to check out “The Autumn Garden.” Written by Lillian Hellman (“The Children’s Hour,” “The Little Foxes”), this work premiered in 1951 and was directed by Harold Clurman. She later referred to the three-act play as her “favorite piece of writing.” Set in 1949 at a summer boarding house by the Gulf of Mexico, Constance (Allison Janney) runs the place where a group of adults confront the middle of their lives at the end of the summer. There’s the Ellis dynasty with three generations of old southern money. At the helm is Mrs. Mary Ellis (Elizabeth Franz), whose acerbic wit had me in stitches throughout. Her daughter, Carrie (Cynthia Mace) is literally and figuratively in the middle, as her son is on the verge of being swindled as his wedding approaches. The bride-to-be is Sophie Tuckerman (played by Mammie Gummer), who has left her life in Europe to run Constance’s house. Then there’s Constance’s almost-beau, Edward Crossman (Rufus Collins), and her former beau, Nicholas Denery (John Benjamin Hickey) and his new wife, Nina (Jessica Hecht). So it’s a full cast of characters thrown into Thomas Lynch’s airy and open set. Ilona Somogyi’s costumes are not only perfect to the period and setting, they could have their own spread in ‘Vanity Fair,’ they’re so gorgeous. But the most remarkable thing about this play is its slick production. When I was told that the running time was three hours, I nearly passed out on the lawn outside. It was my third play of the day, and was nervous that I would check out. But with this cast, and the momentum of David Jones’ direction, I sat (pretty much literally) on the edge of my seat. Janney has tackled a clumsy maternity as she watches over her guests but yearns for her own moment of magic. Gummer is beguiling and immediate in her portrayal of a young naive girl who holds her own secrets close to the vest. Hickey is a charming ass who continues to surprise us at every turn, and Franz is just flat-out my new favorite actress. This show should move to Broadway immediately so that a wider audience can take it in. Sure, it’s a tough sell, but once you get a few butts in the seats, the soft hum that leads to great things can begin.