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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 425-426
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Alison's House. By Susan Glaspell. The Mint Theater, New York, New York. 16 October 1999.
Susan Glaspell's Alison's House won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1931. Eva Le Gallienne had staged and starred in the New York premiere for her Civic Repertory Theatre, but the script and production had been skewered by the critics. News of the award sent shock waves through the theatre press, which condemned the Pulitzer committee for its selection and shortly thereafter formed their own influential adjudicative body, the New York Drama Critics Circle. For almost seventy years, no New York company has revived the play considered the rankest outsider ever to win the Pulitzer. But this season, the Mint Theater bravely bucked tradition and produced a moving and spirited production of Alison's House, directed by Linda Ames Key.
Glaspell based her drama on the family of American poet Emily Dickinson, whose centennial year was celebrated in 1930. Although Glaspell wanted to write a biographical drama, the Dickinson estate refused permission to use the family name or any of Emily's verse. Rather than abandon the project, Glaspell chose to create the fictional Alison Stanhope whose relatives, like the Dickinsons, had to grapple with the poet's legacy. Set on the last day of the nineteenth century, the play chronicles the breakup of the family estate and discovery of some previously unknown verse by Alison that sheds new light on her emotional life. Although Alison has been dead many years, she becomes a living presence in the drama through the force of her creativity. As the twentieth century dawns, the Stanhope family comes to realize not only that Alison was ahead of her time, but that they need to rethink their own entrenched ideas about art, morality, and social convention.
For the Mint production, Ames Key assembled a strong cast that displayed admirable sensitivity to Glaspell's blend of humor and heartfelt emotion. Particularly noteworthy were the performances of Lee Moore as Alison's brother John and Ann Hillary as her sister Agatha. Glaspell makes John and Agatha the central figures of conflict in the play. John embodies the nineteenth-century values and rigid morality questioned by the younger characters, especially his daughter Elsa (Karla Mason, in [End Page 425] the role originated by Le Gallienne), who has been cast out by her father for choosing to live with a married man. Moore conveyed John's force of character with ramrod posture and a touch of gravel in his voice. He handled the inevitable reconciliation with Elsa subtly, displaying both the character's integrity and Moore's technical understanding of how best to work in the intimate Mint space.
Glaspell gives Agatha more pyrotechnics; not only is she the character who craftily guards Alison's secrets, she literally attempts to set fire to the house in order to do so. Hillary clearly enjoyed playing the dotty, loving, and fiercely loyal Agatha. She made us see the wheels turning as she attempted to trick the other family members into doing her, and Alison's, bidding. The scene between Agatha and Elsa, in which the aunt entrusts the long-hidden verse to her niece, should have been more powerful, but Mason did not summon the energy to match Hillary's intense commitment to Agatha's mission. Gerard O'Brien and Matt Opatrny effectively conveyed fraternal differences as Elsa's brothers Eben and Ted. While O'Brien gave us a nuanced rendering of Eben's growing frustration with his career and marriage to the parochial and snide Louise (nicely realized by Sarah Brockus), Opatrny played Ted a bit too broadly, especially with his physical choices, which seemed both out of period and out of character. Sharron Bower provided a sweet yet thoughtful Ann Leslie, secretary to John Stanhope and daughter of the woman he loved but renounced many years earlier.
K. Maynard deserves considerable credit for creating multiple scenic environments on the shallow Mint stage which has no useful wing space. The act 3 set of Alison...