Springs Eternal – Orange Tree Theatre, London – review by Carole Woddis.

There is no other theatre in the world which has staged as many plays by Susan Glaspell as Sam Walters’ Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond.

Glaspell was a contemporary of Eugene O’Neill and one of the co-founders of the Provincetown Players, the group that championed O’Neill.

O’Neill went on to greatness.  Glaspell disappeared into the mists of history until re-discovered by Walters with the help of American female academics.

Springs Eternal was Glaspell’s final play, never performed.  Walters’ production at the Orange Tree is therefore its World Premiere.

As with all Walters’ `rediscoveries’, were Glaspell alive today, I fancy she’d be delighted with his production.  Attention to detail, first rate casting and conscientious performances are givens for Walters’ in-the-round theatre which he finally vacates as artistic director next year after 42 years.

Springs Eternal is no exception to that exemplary record.  A big, ambitious, loquacious play, Glaspell tackles difficult issues such as the loss of idealism, `the great man’ syndrome, intellectual responsibility and the generation gap.  Written in 1943, after America had entered World War II, she poses the question of the consequences of inspirational ideas when it entails sending young men to fight for a better world when the instigator of such idealism has himself now lost belief.

As a play, Springs Eternal is far from perfect.  Within a Chekhovian setting of domestic turmoil, comings and goings, misdirected love and a dizzying array of subplots, Glaspell’s writing sometimes betrays the over-abstracted wordiness of her time and circle.  At nearly three hours, the play suffers too from a series of false climaxes as though Glaspell were unwilling to end.

A play of wit and mounting paradoxes, it nonetheless overcomes all resistance by its generosity of spirit and belief in the young and in its salute to the older generation.  Despite the onset of World War and the blame attached to that generation – and striking a resonant note with today’s baby-boomers leaving a mess for succeeding generations to pick up – the unanimous toast at the end, by parents and children alike, is to `a brave new world’ and to all the mothers and fathers `who did their best.’

In a terrific cast, Stuart Fox as Owen Higgenbothem, the author of a fictionally influential book, `World of Tomorrow’, carries the resigned arrogance of a fallen visionary.  Julia Hills as his second wife and Miranda Foster as his wayward, eccentric, constantly bright-eyed first wife (who delights in the misnomer of Harry) provide contrasting wives – the one warm, practical, down-to-earth, the other fickle, egocentric and glamorously immature.

Jeremy Lloyd as Owen’s son, Harold, a conscientious objector and would-be painter and Lydia Larson as Dottie (Dottie by name as well as nature and actually underwritten as a character) provide interestingly unconventional portraits of the next generation.

It is left to Walters’ wife, Auriol Smith as the family housekeeper, Mrs Soames, to provide the living example of Glaspell’s message – a woman whose son, inspired by `World of Tomorrow’ enlists, is subsequently killed but who, as well as endorsing the benefits of cups of tea in times of tribulation, displays all the natural attributes of being just `a good person.’

Hope does spring eternal, eventually.

Recommended.

To Oct 19

Carole Woddis © Sept 15, 2013

More info: www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk.