Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘Trelawny of the Wells' Serves Up Tribute to Theatre Artists
MADISON, NJ – Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Bonnie Monte calls “Trelawney of the Wells,” “a love letter to theatre artists that celebrates admirers and patrons as well.” On opening night at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, she said she has wanted to do this play for 30 years, ever since she was first involved with it at the Williamstown Festival Theatre. NJST’s 50th anniversary seemed like the ideal time.
Written by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, this stylish production takes place in Victorian London, contrasting the lives of artists in their careless lodgings with the proper home of the Gowers on Cavendish Square. Arthur, the grandson of Sir William Gower, has fallen in love with Rose Trelawny, an actress and one of the ‘gypsies’ who travels about the countryside.
We soon see the conflict between the free and easy (if penniless) life of the actors and the responsible residents living in a protected, buffered society.
The cast is superb in its ability to absorb all these levels of life, while transporting the audience to other times and places. Edmond Genest, a long time STNJ member (his 17th season), is perfection itself as Sir Gower. He’ is constantly looking for a chair and does a rousing imitation of Edmond Kean as Richard III when he starts to recall his own youth.
Arthur, played by Jordan Coughtry, has the boyish charm and awkwardness to help you understand his appeal. Nisi Sturgis is the central character, Rose, who goes through her own transformation with conviction, at first as the free spirited actress who can’t sit still for the decorum of the Gower household. But when she returns to the theatre life, she has lost that spontaneity and has been fired by the company. Sturgis was recently seen on this stage in “To Kill a Mocking Bird” and “I Capture the Castle.”
The play also involves a would-be playwright, Tom Wrench, played b John Patrick Hayden. Like most of the other "actors" in this story, he is hanging on and barely surviving. Carolyn Kozlowski as Imogen Parrot has great presence as the one sane actress who can make things happen and helps Wrench get his play produced. In her ninth season with this theatre, she was Desdemona in “Othello” and Amanda in “Private Lives,” among other productions. Jon Barker as Ferdinand Gadd creates a foolish and self-important figure in his over-the-top "actorish" outbursts.
When actors are assigned pantomime, that’s apparently a step down. When a seasoned actress becomes a wardrobe mistress (Elizabeth Shepherd), that means she’s no longer wanted on the stage. When another aging actor, played by Jim Mohr, is offered a bit part, you can see the downward spiral in these lives.
It’s easy to see why Monte is so entranced with this play. Not only is it light, entertaining and hilarious, but it has deeper themes of generational differences, of the way we see ourselves and how we’re seen by others, of the ways we all want to reinvent ourselves at one time or another to a more exciting version of ourselves.
Adding to this ravishing production are Monte and Anita Tripathi Easterling’s scenic design. And the actors pitch in moving furniture, rolling up rugs and doing other stage duties. The piano music in the background lends a distinctive touch, capturing an ethereal quality. Hugh Hanson’s costumes are handsome indeed, with elegant gowns and tuxedos and rowdy combinations for the visiting actors.