AISLE SAY San Francisco


by W. Somerset Maugham
Directed by Mark Lamos
Presented by and at the American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Part of the way that American Conservatory Theater is celebrating its 40th anniversary season is by reviving successful past productions. Hence the title of its current production, "The Circle" by W. Somerset Maugham, has added significance. It recalls the 1977 production that was revived in 1978. It is so memorable because of the three veteran ACT actors who portrayed the play's elder characters.

Those actors -- now all deceased -- were Marrian Walters as Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney, William Paterson as Clive Champion-Cheney and Sydney Walker as Lord Hugh Porteous. Besides their individual talents, these three had the advantage of being members of the resident company and having worked together. They had excellent rapport, resulting in sharp timing as well as the ability to play people who have known one another for a long time. They also had worked with most of their fellow actors, expanding the sense of ensemble.

That sense of ensemble and the sharp timing are missing from this current revival. Director Mark Lamos hasn't molded his actors into characters who know one another well, or perhaps some roles have been miscast. Maugham's 1921 drawing-room play, set in a handsome English home in 1920, relies more on dialogue than action to propel the story. In the right hands, the talk flows. Otherwise, it can seem stilted at times, as it does here.

The title refers to a family story that seems destined to be repeated in a second generation. Arnold Champion-Cheney (James Waterston), a member of Parliament, is still bitter that his mother, Lady Catherine (Kathleen Widdoes), deserted his father, Clive (Philip Kerr), when Arnold was 5 years old. She ran off with Clive's friend, Lord Hugh Porteous (Ken Ruta), who gave up a promising political career because of the scandal.

Now Arnold's wife, Elizabeth (Allison Jean White), has fallen in love with Edward "Teddy" Luton (Craig Marker), who has less money and social standing than Arnold. With the three elder characters together after more than 30 years, they reflect on how their lives have changed for the better and worse, especially since Elizabeth is considering running off with Teddy, repeating the cycle.

Kerr as Clive, who has become something of a charming reprobate, and Ruta as Lord Hugh, now a curmudgeon, seem best suited and most comfortable in their roles. Otherwise, the production's strengths lie in the design, especially John Arnone's light-filled solarium, all white and green; Candice Donnelly's handsome period costumes; York Kennedy's lighting and Jeff Mockus' sound.

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