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A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur — Shaw Festival — Court House Theatre

Shaw_Lovely_Sunday_WebGallery2“A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” is a compact one-act that carries the emotional and theatrical heft of a full-length play. Written by Tennessee Williams after his prime, “Creve Coeur,” more than “Vieux Carré,” “Small Craft Warnings,”  “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” or other Williams plays of the 1970s, recalls the poetry of the author’s masterpieces and his gift for vivid, intense characterization. It is a sweet and wise slice of life that depicts a likeable woman at a moment when she must make critical decisions about her future. Humor and personality abound within a taut, serious story concerning a young, but mature, individual assessing where she is in life and making the most of what she sees as limited, if definite, options.

The quality of Williams’s play is markedly enhanced by the witty and atmospheric production Blair Williams has directed for the Shaw Festival. Deborah Hay is wonderful at letting you see the various moods and thought processes her character, Dorothea, a 30-ish high school teacher, goes through as she determines whether to make a great leap into a more sophisticated lifestyle or remain she where is, comfortable if discontented, in a more modest but more down-to-earth living situation.

Dorothea’s crossroad is complicated by pressure she receives from her apartment mate and a colleague from her school. One seems to invite her to a more cultured existence in a posher neighborhood of St. Louis, where the play is set, while the other represents a more conventional have-fun-and-make-do-with-what-you-have attitude that means finding small pleasures after work like going to movies, preparing good meals, and spending Sundays in a shady spot by the lake at Creve Coeur.

Dorothea is torn. She is driven to migraine at both the ordinariness of her roommate’s life and the expense of the more genteel day-to-day proposed by her fellow teacher, whose snobbery and acquired hauteur could be a play in themselves.

Her choice is not made easier by the way the versatile Kate Hennig and the appropriately disapproving Kaylee Harwood go about their parts. Hennig, working class but knowing as the housemate, Bodey, may not exude class or worldliness, but she has an honest benevolence about her,  and she is proud to be an everyday woman with a hard German head.

Bodey has no airs. Her pleasure is haggling for good food at the market and keeping a tidy, if not an especially pretty or impressive house.

Helena, her adversary for Dorothea’s company, wants to create a quiet salon in a better neighborhood, but to fulfill her own ambitions, she needs someone who can share half of the rent and other costs, such as for sharing a car. Helena envisions a place with books and tastefully chosen paintings and objets d’art where she and Dorothea can live with some polish and, perhaps, attract men who will move them to another kind of living arrangement.

In the midst of this tug-of-war for Dorothea’s allegiance, Williams adds hope and heartbreak. Dorothea has been dating an assistant principal at her school and is hoping for him to call even as Bodey and Helena are trading cold stares and finding ways to keep the other from having private access to Dorothea. Like Blanche DuBois, Dorothea longs for a Shep Huntleigh to take her out of her current dilemma, by marrying her and changing her life in a way she’s fantacized about and prefers.

In her heart of hearts, Dorothea doesn’t want to choose between Bodey’s cozy but neat apartment or Helena’s higher toned abode uptown. She wants to be chosen by a man who has shown signs and said things that encourage her hopes for marriage and days without teaching, temporary roommates, picnics at Creve Coeur or anything else.

While disappointment about not receiving her expected telephone helps to drive Dorothea to her bed with a headache, Bodey and Helena both know how unrealistic Dorothea’s ideas about marriage are. In addition, Bodey keeps trying to get Dorothea to go out with her barely interested brother, who promises to lose weight by reducing his daily beer consumption from 12 bottles to eight, to become more attractive.

Williams keeps all dramatic while Hay, Hennig, and Harwood make the twists and turns of his plot a treat to behold. Blair Williams has caught the essence of “A Lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur,” and it’s hard to conceive of a more perfect production of the show.

Deborah Hay is having a remarkable season at the Shaw. She is an interesting Sally Bowles,  showing brains and depth beyond that character’s need for reckless indulgence and self-conscious merriment in “Cabaret.” In “Creve Coeur,” she is adroit in showing Dorothea’s indecision, an hard thing to convey.

There is nothing stock or basic about Hay’s performance. You witness her feeling all the forces working on her brain as she suffers by not receiving her desired telephone call as has Bodey and Helena coming at her  from all angles. Hay’s Dorothea not only has to making some crucial decisions. She is compelled to look at her life as a whole and make sense of it. In one morning, she has to cope with the possibly of prolonged spinsterhood, an adult life that means having to have a job in an era when married women rarely worked, the situation of facing Helena and the man who disappointed her each day at work, and the prospect of domiciling with the housewifely but earthbound Bodey or charting  a new, brighter course with Helena.

This is the stuff of which drama is made, and Hay does credit to both Tennessee and Blair Williams by portraying Dorothea so thoroughly and with such nuance.

Hay makes Dorothea sympathetic. You may know what you want for her, based on the performances of Hennig and Harwood, as much as Hay’s, but you feel deeply for Dorothea as she comes to critical conclusions. Hay, by letting you see and, perhaps, share Dorothea’s burden does a fine job of moving the audience and letting us see how harrowing turning points can be.

Kate Hennig is another who stands out at the Shaw this year. She merits special attention about a fine ensemble cast as a strict, henpecking wife in “When We Are Married.” In “A Lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur, she embodies the ordinary woman who has little to recommend her except for decency, satisfaction with her lot in life, good domestic skills, and a kind heart.

Hennig’s Bodey will never turn heads, but she will win respect with her genuine goodness.

She’s not beyond trick to two to bend Dorothea or her brother to her will, but Bodey’s mundane heart is in the right place. At least for a conventional thinker who has no interest in venturing too far into the cultural or chic.

In both of her performance at this season’s Shaw, Hennig is a cornerstone of reality. You believe everything her characters say and do while admiring the actress’s deftness in creating such authentic, dimensional beings.

Kaylee Harwood also finds all the right notes as Helena. Her first gaze around Bodey’s apartment informs you Helena is a snob who makes instant judgments. Even before you know exactly who Helena is, you know she is a woman on a mission. One thinks she may be attached to the man of whom Dorothea is enamored. Harwood looks that serious. You know a challenge or confrontation is in store. And she may be a woman who, seeing Dorothea’s living situation, believes she is saving a friend and colleague from a fate only slightly better than death. Harwood is that good at expressing detached, but judgmental, poise.

Harwood’s Helena has to stand a middle ground between being a voice of reason, a hope for a better existence, and an incorrigible snob who is determined to persuade Dorothea to move in with her because she definitely wants, and thinks she deserves, a  grander life and can’t afford it without someone to share expenses.

Helena is a honey-tongued bully who presents her case with a combination of high style and force and who can turn venomous on a dime. Harwood gives her a patina of class and a  no-nonsense attitude that makes Helena somewhat repellent yet one you think it might be motivating  to be around.

The fourth member of this fine cast is Julain Molnar, who plays an upstairs neighbor to Bodey and Dorothea and is inconsolable because she just lost her mother and has suicidal thoughts because of her fear of being alone. Hennig’s Bodey shows her plangently human side in being kind to Molnar’s character, Miss Gluck.

Molnar is funny as she weeps, makes  mournful pronouncements in German, and serves as a symbol of what Dorothea or Bodey could become if they’re not careful.

For all Helena complains about Bodey’s apartment, designer Cameron Porteous takes care to furnish is hues as bright and patterns as busy as Williams’s script mentions but also gives the place a warmth and coziness that keeps it from being hideous or so tasteless that it’s laughable. One can be comfortable in Bodey’s living room with its red printed sofas. The kitchen Porteous provides her is serviceable. Only Dorothea’s bedroom seems a bit Spartan.

Tennessee Williams has provided a worthy, worthwhile comedy. Blair Williams has brought it to life with aplomb. Deborah Hay, Kate Hennig, Kaylee Harwood, and Julain Molnar make certain that any day you spend hearing them talk about Creve Coeur will be a lovely one.

“A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” runs through Saturday, October 11 at the Court House Theater of the Shaw Festival, 26 Queen Street, in  Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Showtimes are generally 11:30 a.m., but the schedule is staggered because the Shaw Festival presents its shows in repertory. Tickets range from $113 to 35 CDN and can be obtained by calling 1-800-511-SHAW (1-800-511-7429) or by visiting www.shawfest.com.

 

 

 

 

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