Friday, September 2, 2011

Douglas Messerli "Bond of Age" (on J. M. Barrie's "Rosalind" and "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals")


BOND OF AGE
by Douglas Messerli

J. M. Barrie "Barrie: Back to Back," Rosalind and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals / Los Angeles, Pacific Resident Theatre (the production I saw was on Sunday, August 28, 2011)

If Barrie's Peter Pan can be described as the refusal of youth to become old, a play about the attempt of the young to remain that way forever, the two short plays I saw this past Sunday— although still very much centered on the issues of young and old—might be said to hint at strange bonds between the two. One might almost be tempted to take that further and suggest a "bondage." After all, if Wendy and her brothers had not been surrounded by loving, if sometimes disapproving adults, there would have been no need to seek another world. Indeed, in Barrie's works, the desire for new adventures is not at all like Dickens' world, peopled with tortured children and waifs who must escape simply to survive. In Barrie's child-like fables, the figures reach out to other worlds simply for solace and psychological needs. As in our own youth-obsessed culture, so Barrie's adults and children simply prefer to stay young.

It is that relationship between the young and the old that is the focus of these two slightly sentimental, but still entertaining short plays. In "Rosalind," a middle-aged woman (Mrs. Page) sits in a country home which she has rented with her slightly older landlady (Dame Quickly) in attendance as they gossip—Mrs. Page greedily eating bon-bons or nuts while they speak. The conversation mostly centers on Mrs. Page's satisfaction about being middle-aged, her feeling that it is wonderful to be aging and much more enjoyable than the activities of her actor-daughter who, at the moment, so we hear, is in Monte Carlo. The somewhat disheveled, graying Mrs. Page is obviously proud of her daughter, Beatrice—she has her photograph prominently displayed—but she is not at all distressed that she seldom gets the opportunity to see her, and, she later admits, has never seen the girl upon stage.

Into this quaint tea-time setting stumbles a young man, Charles Roche, seeking, improbably, a short respite from the rain before his train returns to the city. At first he is refused by the landlady, as Mrs. Page pretends to sleep, but gradually he wiggles his way to the warm hearth, intending to read and leave the tenant to herself. But all that changes when he spots Beatrice's photograph! The actress is at the center of his attentions, and, we soon discover, he has met her and dined with her, unable to comprehend, accordingly, why her photograph should appear on the mantel of the "far from London" setting. Gradually he awakens the sleeping Mrs. Page, and, little by little, discovers that the woman he has just met is the actresses' mother.

So obsessed with Beatrice is Charles that he feels equally strong attachments to her mother, and opens his heart to her, telling the older woman how much he is in love with her daughter. Surprisingly Mrs. Page puts these sentiments and the trinkets that go with them (a photograph he keeps in his wallet across from the picture of his sister) into perspective, even mocking them. And in a quick dismissal of his emotions, Mrs. Page rips up the cherished photograph.

He is horrified, shocked by her behavior. But gradually discovers, through her knowledge of him and growing revelations (dear reader, go no further if you will not have the plot revealed) that the middle-aged woman before him and his beloved Beatrice are one and the same. Beatrice, it appears is not at all in Monte Carlo, but has escaped as Mrs. Page to be able for one of the few times in her life to discover herself at her true age instead of the eternally young figure she must play upon the stage.

Charles is stunned, disheartened, even perhaps horrified. How could such a beauty have been transformed into the woman standing before his eyes? Yet, as she reveals her's—and every young star's dilemma—he gallantly offers her marriage—in order to protect her in her old age! The gesture may be gallant but, of course, is ridiculous! It is also, perhaps, somewhat obscene. It is quite impossible that the young, handsome boy come out of the rain, can sit for the rest of his life gossiping with his aging wife.

Barrie, fortunately, has another surprise up his sleeve, as Beatrice/Mrs. Page is called back to London to play Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It. Suddenly the actress is in a flurry, running to pack, to change clothes and accompany her potential "lover" back to the city. Her entry after dressing says it all: she is now young again, not a real human being plagued with age, but something of the stage, a made-up simulacrum of a young beauty for all her audience to love. In a sense, Mrs. Page has become her own Peter Pan, a reimagining of her own being.

The second of these solidly staged plays is simpler in plot, but far more complex emotionally than the first play. After bearing through a recitation of four charwoman's recountings of their sons, all at war (acted, unfortunately, as he have come to expect from small companies, with a babble of unfocused English accents), the play turns to the central character, Mrs. Dowey (excellently performed by Penny Safranek), whose son, so the vicar reports, has just returned for a leave from the front. His arrival is almost breathtaking, as a handsome, brawny, kilted man from the "Black Watch" enters Mrs. Dowey's basement hovel, while the other women are sent scurrying off.

The actor playing Kenneth Dowey (Joe McGovern) has the Scottish brogue down rather well, and is stunningly handsome enough that, despite his overly self-confident sense of being, his presence almost does take away the breath. Certainly, his appearance seems to have startled his mother. Rightfully so, for as we soon discover, although they share last names, they are no relation to one another. Mrs. Dowey has "stolen" his name and address from the local paper, and having herself no son or even previous husband, has felt so alien from the "war effort," and so excluded from her friends, all of whom have boys in service, that she has "made him up," so to speak, sending him cakes and other treats under a different name, and following his wartime adventures through the papers. The stack of letters she has shown her friends that he has written her are all blank.

At first the soldier is justifiably angry with the lying woman, but gradually, as he discovers the extent with which she had deceived everyone, including himself, and her explanations for her acts, he grows more tolerant. He, we soon discover, is himself an orphan, and her desperate interest in his being suits his high impression of himself. When she offers him a bed and clean sheets he cannot resist.

A few nights later, we discover, they have dined out each evening, he buying her a astrakhan, she serving as a doting and somewhat gay confidant for a lonely man in the city. By the end of the play, Kenneth kneels before her, as if about to propose, and does so: will she accept the role of his mother? It is a beautifully conceived, if sentimental, gesture. But it is also so revealing of the author's strange entanglements of youth and age. As in "Rosalind," youth bows to age always, although it understands itself as the superior. But it is just its own shining being that so attracts the old to it. There is a whiff here almost of "pedophilia," and given Barrie's own relationship with his mother—for whom he often played his preferred dead brother—and his deep (and apparently detrimental) involvement with the boys of the Davies family, there is certainly much more to be said about this "bond between the ages."

As Kenneth tearfully leaves, however, we are awarded the delightful sight of the old woman opening the package of trinkets, a hat, medals, etc., which he has awarded her. And we feel, despite her lies and, now, perhaps his self-deceptions, this bonding of the two has been nearly inevitable, and is surely a good thing.

Los Angeles, August 31, 2011

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