AISLE SAY Philadelphia


by Harley Granville-Barker
Directed by Malcolm Black
Walnut Street Theatre, 8th & Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, PA
Playing through April 27, 2003
Box Office: (215) 574-3550

Reviewed by Claudia Perry

For their spring production,Walnut Street Theatre has unearthed a forgotten play, "The Voysey Inheritance" by actor, producer, director, playwright and scholar, Harley Granville-Barker. First produced on London's West End in 1905, this very human comedy about ethics in the world of finance rings as fresh today as it did almost 100 hundred years ago.

Just as Chekhov creates three dimensional characters that are neither good nor bad but somewhere in between, so Mr. Granville-Barker has crafted the men and women of the Voysey family. Act I focuses on the elder Voysey, Sr., the head of a respected British investment firm (Voysey & Son) as he prepares his son, Edward, to assume the reins of leadership. Unbeknownst to the naive Edward, the elder Voysey has played fast and lose with his clients' money depleting some portfolios completely of their capital. This revelation forces the very shocked Edward to either let sleeping dogs lie or go to the authorities and create a scandal.

Paxton Whitehead is deliciously appealing as Voysey, Sr. whose confident, hail-fellow-well-met personality has duped his clients for years into trusting him with their financial nest eggs. His character has the burdensome task of setting up all the exposition and then conveniently dying early on in the play so that Edward can be left alone to wrestle with the demons he has created.

Canadian actor, Blair Williams brings an understated sensitivity to the role of Edward that is immediately engaging. Mr. Blair's performance is so seamless that it's impossible to tell where craft starts and intuition takes over. His portrayal of Edward is some magical mix of the two rendering him at once the completely sympathetic and endearing hero of the play. For it is indeed Mr. Williams play —all five acts of it which have been wisely condensed into two.

Grace Gonglewski makes some interesting choices as Alice Maitland but I don't know if they serve the character well. Alice keeps waiting for Edward to show some sort of decisiveness before she consents to marry him -- some show of manly character. Ms. Gonglewski seems to have chosen for her character to want this for her own selfish motives—so that Edward will now be more of a "turn on" for her—instead of wanting it so that Edward will become the man he is destined to be. Perhaps this gives her that charming twinkle she seems to have all evening, but somehow makes her less of a heroine in my overly romantic eyes. Still, she and Mr. Williams play very well together as the love interest of the evening. Ted Pejovich is quite comic as Major Booth Voysey, Edward's elder brother, a delightful peacock who struts around the stage spewing terrible advice led by his pointy little mustache. In her all too brief scene, Sara Pauley is wonderfully saucy as the spoiled Ethel Voysey, the youngest daughter and obvious apple of her daddy's eye. Handsome Ian Merrill Peakes as Hugh Voysey, the youngest brother, looks like a bewildered Lord Fauntleroy in his black velvet suit as he struggles with the dilemma of being a stultified artist. Alicia Roper is striking as his disenchanted and soon to be liberated wife, Beatrice. Her pragmatism and independent spirit must have been in the vanguard in 1905. Ian D. Clark as the obsequious Peacey, the head clerk of Voysey & Son plays him with a stooping ingratitude that is manifested in his cowering physical demeanor and Sally Mercer is very good as the unmarried older sister, Honor, portraying her as a sweet, devoted, flustered, and overly vulnerable spinster.

Director Malcolm Black must be congratulated for, number one, casting this play of 18 characters so well and, number two, keeping each actor playing in the same style. With such a disparate group of actors with various levels and types of training, this is not as easy as it may seem. But my biggest delight of the evening (besides enjoying this forgotten play) was to sit back and enjoy the naturalistic tenor of the whole piece —the play and the players. The recent trend in acting style has been so over blown and so over the top that poor Eleanora Duse is probably turning in her grave.

The set by Paul Wonsek draws well deserved applause when the curtain reveals it. Consisting of two settings that revolve back and forth, the first is the Voysey's London office where, a wall of rich wood panelling holds a library of books in green bindings. Add to this, lush period furnishings, and you have the feeling of British pre-World War I opulence. The second scene is the Voysey's magnificent dining room. Red silk damask covers the walls lined with gilded framed portraits of family ancestors. A huge dining table and chairs are the central focus festooned throughout the evening with rich table linens, silver candlesticks and the remains of a lavish meal.

The costumes by Hilary Corbett are lavish and beautifully detailed. When Voysey Sr. dies and the entire cast is in black, there are some subtle and interesting variations on the theme. However, I didn't understand why in the last scene all the women were in black and purple. Though each dress was different, they were all of the exact same hue. (Was it perhaps that they were all still in mourning but purple was allowed because it was a holiday?)

This is quite a wonderful unsung play and well worth all the effort the Walnut has gone through to bring it back to life again. It's a lovely production and I highly recommend it as an entertaining and rewarding evening of theatre.

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