Charley’s Aunt | Act Inc.

Charleys Aunt ACT-INCI figured I wouldn’t like it. Well, like Baby’s father says to Johnny Castle at the end of Dirty Dancing: “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.”

 

 

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Cross-dressing isn’t just happening in Shakespeare Glen, as we saw to hilarious affect at the opening of Charley’s Aunt at Act Inc. I’ve never seen Jack Dryden, a Washington University student, on stage before, but I certainly hope I will again. He imbues the improbable Lord Fancourt Babberley with enough energy to power a small town during Christmas week.

But, to begin at the beginning: Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas was first produced in the 1890s and ran for years in London and, later, New York. Over time it has enjoyed many revivals and been translated into numerous languages. It’s not just a relic, like so many of its contemporaries; it is a genuine classic. The plot revolves around three young men at Oxford, John “Jack” Chesney (Reggie Pierre), Charley Wykeham (Ian Brinkley), and the aforementioned Babberley (called “Babbs” by his friends). They are suitors of various young women, although, we don’t have that information about Babberley until later in the play. Chesney and Wykeham wish to entertain their lady friends in Chesney’s private rooms, but that would only be proper if an older lady were present to chaperone. Fortunately, Charley’s aunt is arriving from Brazil on this same day, so they make plans for a luncheon, which will include the older woman, the recently widowed Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez who had made a very wealthy deathbed marriage.

Charley has never met his aunt, so he doesn’t know what she looks like, and when he receives the unwelcome news that her arrival has been delayed, the men prevail upon Babbs, who just happens to have women’s clothing and a wig with him for an amateur theatrical, to impersonate her. He’s none too happy about the masquerade, but he goes along with it. Meanwhile, an unexpected visitor has turned up, Col. Sir Francis Chesney (Richard Lewis) Jack’s father recently returned from a posting in India. At 51, he finds himself in more unfortunate circumstances than he had expected, and he tells Jack that things will be tight financially for the next few years, and both of them will have to work. Jack has been a notorious spendthrift, as are his friends, so the fact that he takes this news in stride is a bit of a surprise.

The young ladies arrive but quickly depart when there is no chaperone present. When they return, there is: Charley’s fake Aunt. Kitty Verdun (Sara Womack), who is Jack’s inamorata, and Amy Spettigue (Nellie Ognacevic) who is Charley’s, take to “Aunt Lucia” immediately. Stephen Spettigue (Jesse Russell) storms the battlements in high dudgeon as the guardian of the girls’ honor—Amy is his niece and Kitty his ward—but he settles down when he sees that a woman is present. Before long, both Sir Francis and Mr. Spettigue are courting “Lucia,” Sir Francis for her money and Mr. Spettigue for love at first sight. Bearing witness and serving the group is Tim Grumich as Jack’s butler Brassett, a model of forbearance if ever there was one.

It would take pages and pages to relate the ins and outs of the action in Charley’s Aunt, which comes to a head when the real Donna Lucia arrives in the elegant person of Jane Sullivan with her adopted niece Ela Delahay (Tasha Zebrowski) and of course, all’s well that ends well, but there are many surprises for the audience along the way. And while I mentioned Jack Dryden first, the rest of the cast is equally fine in their less flamboyant roles. Pierre is a model of British sensibility addled by love, and my only complaint with him is that, compared to the younger Dryden, and much younger Brinkley, he looks a bit long in the tooth for his role. However, he is a strong center for the craziness around him, some of which he does initiate, and he has a nice relationship with his father and a sweetly romantic one with his lady. Brinkley is a revelation as Charley. With a spot-on British accent, military bearing, but a childlike manner given to moments of hysteria, and while he does have some acting experience, this is his first professional stage show. He’s one to watch. The young ladies don’t have a lot to do, but they manage flirtatious and attractive very well. The adept Russell uses his size as a running joke as he chases “Lucia” from pillar to post (well, terrace to garden anyway), and Lewis is dignified and courtly, especially once the real Lucia shows up. Sullivan hasn’t acted for a while—she usually has costume credits, as she does here—but this well-modulated, graceful performance made me hope that she is back. She should give elocution lessons to the young women because when their backs are to us, as they often are in this staging, while they’ve turned up the volume, they aren’t always easy to understand. Sullivan is.

The set is three discrete locations, so the three-act convention of two intermissions must be upheld, and I’m happy it was. I don’t mind long plays at all if we get a couple of breaks, and the current belief that audiences will only tolerate one intermission seems silly to me. The costumes are stunning, especially the ladies’ evening wear borrowed, according to the program, from Robert Schmidt Costumes. Michael Sullivan’s lights and Zoe Sullivan’s sound design add to the sense of time and place, and Richard Lewis’s dialect coaching really paid off in this one. It’s interesting to note the family ties here: Meg Brinkley is stage manager and properties mistress, and Ian is her son. The Sullivan’s are a triple threat we often see working together. These folks give a whole new meaning to the phrase “theatre family.”

Biggest kudos go to director Emily Robinson. She keeps the action moving at the breakneck speed that farce requires, but it never seems rushed. She has drawn fine performances from both veteran and fledgling actors. I only object to some of the blocking in which actors clump up now and then with their backs to one side or another of the audience. Otherwise, it’s a terrific job. I didn’t expect much from Charley’s Aunt; in fact, even though I’d never seen it, I figured I wouldn’t like it. Well, like Baby’s father says to Johnny Castle at the end of Dirty Dancing: “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.” And I had the time of my life at this gloriously entertaining show. | Andrea Braun

Charley’s Aunt is running in repertory with George Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married, which opened last week. The former plays the rest of this weekend and June 28, 29, 30. You may visit actincstl.com. Act Inc. produces two classic plays every summer, and this is its 33rd season.

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