Chicago Theatre Review
A Weekend in the Country
Last seen in Chicago a mere 120 years ago, Dion Boucicault’s comedy of manners is a delightfully clever, wordy comedy of manners. Written by the 21-year-old Irish playwright in 1841, this satire of British upper class behavior mirrors the comic style and overblown characters created by playwrights Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith. Boucicault’s play avoids tackling any weighty social or political issues of the time, focusing, instead, upon romantic situations, preposterous personalities, crazy ideals and a aristocrat who’s become a slave to fashion. Theatergoers may recognize the same themes in the comedies of fellow Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. In fact, it’s likely that Wilde was influenced by Coucicault’s works when writing his own popular plays during the later half of the 19th century.
Directed with style, enthusiasm and animated ardor by artistic director Terry McCabe, this longwinded comedy features a parade of characters, who range from quirky to downright bizarre. They find themselves enmeshed in a series of complicated events and intricate romantic triangles. This comedy is a wacky weekend in the country that tells an outlandish tale about love spiced with deception.
In the early morning hours, young Charles Courtly slinks back to his London family home, following another wild night of drunken revelry and spending money he doesn’t have. With him is his new friend, Richard Dazzle, a young opportunist who, we discover, survives by ingratiating himself with anyone around him. Cool, Charles’ wisely discerning valet, helps the boy avoid the eyes of his father, who still believes Charles to be a clean-living innocent. Sixty-year-old Sir Harcourt Courtly, who claims to be much younger, has arranged to marry Grace, the strong-willed teenage niece of his friend, Squire Max Harkaway. While the girl has agreed to the marriage, strictly for financial security, she unabashedly proclaims that she doesn’t believe in romance, calling it “an epidemic madness.” In addition, Grace has never met her intended; however, she’s soon in for quite a surprise.
The following day Sir Courtly arrives at Oak Hall, Squire Harkaway’s country estate, for an extended stay. It is then that Grace finally encounters her wealthy, vainglorious fiancee. Sir Courtly, with his dyed, jet black hair, face caked with layers of makeup and adorned in a dandified pink frock coat, is simply a rich old man obsessed with youth and fashion. Unknown to Sir Harcourt, Charles Courtly and his friend Dazzle have also arrived, whereupon Grace and the young Mr. Courtly immediately fall in love. However, when Charles learns that his father is planning to marry Grace, he devises a deceptive plan with the assistance of Dazzle and Cool. Charles pretends to be a man who only looks like Sir Courtly’s son, someone called Augustus Hamilton.
Two more of the Harkaway’s friends arrive at Oak Hall. Lady Gay Spanker and her shy husband Adolphus, nicknamed Dolly, unexpectedly ride up to the house. Sir Courtly is immediately enamored by this attractive, spunky and high-spirited horsewoman. To divert his father’s attention from Grace, so that he can effectively court her, Charles persuades Lady Spanker to pretend to return his father’s attentions. Caught in Lady Spanker’s spell, and not knowing how to tactfully break it off with the younger Miss Harkaway, Sir Courtly convinces Lady Spanker that they should run away together.
Mr. Meddle, a mercenary country lawyer, has been lurking in the shadows, looking for a way to make money off these wealthy aristocrats. He overhears Sir Courtly’s plan to elope and he alerts Dolly. Lord Spanker is then cajoled into challenging the elderly gentleman to a duel. Complications arise and, in the end, love conquers all and, of course, everything works out for the best.
The large cast features the performances of several wonderfully talented actors. Always a treasure in any role, veteran character actor Kingsley Day is delicious as Sir Harcourt Courtly. Resembling an elder English Ichabod Crane, Day struts around the stage, ludicrously posing and preening for his young bride-to-be. Coiffed in an ink-colored wig, his face smeared with rouge and eyeliner, this talented actor creates a sweetly funny older man who can’t accept that he’s no longer young. When Day meets Lady Gay Spanker, he suddenly and humorously turns into babbling adolescent. In short, Mr. Day is one of the best reasons to see this production.
Richard Eisloeffel makes a welcome return to City Lit as wheeler-dealer, Richard Dazzle. This handsome young actor comfortably carries off this role, making his presence as Charles’ opportunist companion a joyful accomplice to the complicated proceedings. His eloquence, poise and indisputable charisma provides a fascinating, likable antihero for this production. Kraig Kelsey, who’s performed on many of Chicago’s stages, makes his debut at City Lit as Charles Courtly. He’s particularly hilarious when trying to fool his father into believing he’s another man who simply looks like Sir Courtly’s son. Talented Edward Kuffert, always magnificent in any role he undertakes, is articulate, commanding and the absolute essence the very British manservant, calm and controlled as Mr. Cool. His witty retorts provide much of the humor in this production.
Kat Evans is sweet, sophisticated and spirited as young Grace Harkaway. Sashaying around the stage in her bobbing side curls and some of Tom Kieffer’s most elegantly beautiful costumes, Ms. Evans is the epitome of the early Victorian lady. Cameron Feagin is a natural as fiery, feisty and flirtatious Lady Gay Spanker. This actress, who bears a striking resemblance to a young Julianne Moore, makes this role entirely her own. Wisely resisting the temptation to overact, Ms. Feagin is a standout in this strong, supporting role. She’s nicely balanced by David Fink’s smoothly underplayed Dolly Spanker. As the reticent husband of this wild woman, it would be easy to fade into the corner; but Mr. Fink holds his own, growing in stature as his character’s patience becomes tested.
Despite the undeniably stylized tenor of this play, two of the actors in this production take their portrayals a bit too over the top. As Mark Meddle, Joe Feliciano unfortunately succumbs to the temptation to milk his part. Like many of the other characters, Meddle breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, but that only prompts the actor to become more animated than is necessary. A little less volume and a lot more restraint would go far. When Feliciano dials it down a bit, he’s quite enjoyable, but these moments, unfortunately, are few and far between. The other actor who could do well to lay off the caffeine is James Sparling, in role of Squire Max Harkaway. The actor’s portrayal of this supposed refined country gentleman often becomes more manic than is required in this intimate space. Coupled with his uncontrolled energy, Mr. Sparling often shouts his lines, making his character appear uncouth and difficult to understand.
Ray Toler’s colorful and versatile scenic design makes the most of the venue, and director Terry McCabe has choreographed all of the scene changes to be performed efficiently, and within seconds. Liz Cooper’s lighting design provides a nice wash of illumination over the story and Kingsley Day has composed a delectable original score that peppers this period piece with appropriate Victorian elegance. As mentioned earlier, Tom Kieffer’s sumptuous period costumes and stylish wigs are the icing on this theatrical confection, continually reminding audiences that God’s in his Heaven, Victoria is on the throne and all’s right with the world.
For a play that’s over 175 years old, this comedy of manners is still as funny and topical as it was when it was written. Dion Boucicault’s first theatrical success, and originally performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, it’s been revived several times over the years times, both in London and on Broadway. Finally, returning to Chicago, we can enjoy all of its mockery and mirth. These elegant, eccentric characters will find their way into every theatergoer’s heart, making it worth the long wait.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 9-July 23 by City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-293-3682 or by going to www.citylit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.