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What acting may do for your soul

By Kevin T. McEneaney, The Millbrook Independent


While Spring flowers are now appearing and we love to spend more time outdoors, indoor blooms should not be neglected. Such a bloom can be found at New Milford’s Theatreworks in Ronald Harwood’s amusing comedy Quartet (1999) directed by Jane Farnol. While witty and humorous, this remains an enduring play that touches the heart.

The setting of a retirement home for actors in England allows four opera amigos who once shone brightly on stage in a noted performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto to re-discover their better selves amid the perils of their life journey as riddles and secrets unravel under the pressure cooker of old age and the history of their mutual baggage. On another level this play offers a profound meditation on acting and the process of self-discovery and collective renewal—that Dionysian experience of rebirth at the heart of excellent theater.

Each of the four actors gradually sheds the masks they wear in real life, fully becoming their real selves when committed to theater. The retirement home performs a public performance once a year. This year they are performing on the day of Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday. When soprano Jean Horton, imperiously played by Dandy Barrett, arrives in the home, the suggestion arises that the four faded opera singers re-unite to reprise their once-legendary performance of the singing quartet scene from the opera. Barrett’s forbidding and uncooperative mask doesn’t easily drop, and her stubbornness hides a dark secret as she plows the plot. Ron Malyszka as the pranking fool Wilfred Bond delivers a bass line of outrageous double entendre puns on sexual matters. That run counter to Barrett’s ethereal soprano pretentions.

Jody Bayer as the affable and unpretentious Cecily Robson nearly steals the show with her charm and ditzy energy as the actress who has a chameleon personality rather than a mask. Uptight and didactic Timothy Breslin as Reginald Paget remains a British type not found in America: a man whose bitterness and stern facade hides his true self, which only emerges in the play’s finale when his seemingly non-actor personality becomes his true self—only when performing on stage.

The play accomplishes what great theater sets out to effect: see life through a new kaleidoscope of wonder and bring a new sense of the wonder and joy of life, even in old age with its seemingly unsurmountable challenges of memory loss, secret wounds, and temporary bouts with near insanity.

Director Jane Farnol does a wonderful job with the play’s pacing and character portrayals. The line “I’m writing my autobiography” should deliver more pungent resonance. Costume design by Mary Kimball is much better than other productions of this delightful play that I have seen. Jim Hipp’s set design on this rather small stage remains a triumph of economy and subtle imagination.

Even if you have seen this artful and profound psychological play before (or have seen the movie version with Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly), you will find this production to be a dizzy delight that will light up your smile and nudge your heart into its real home.

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