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‘Golden Age’ just a bit tarnished

“The Golden Age” must have seemed like a natural choice to kick off the Actor’s Repertory Theatre’s second season.

This play is written by A.R. Gurney, one of America’s most literate contemporary playwrights (and a Spokane favorite). It is also about literature, specifically, the “golden age” of American literature in the 1920s. ART is, after all, dedicated to the idea of theater-as-literature.

So, yes, it’s a perfectly fine introduction to the ART aesthetic. The only drawback – it’s not the greatest Gurney. This play was written in 1980 before Gurney hit his stride. It’s wordy, a little bit awkward and – let’s face it – a bit dull.

It is redeemed by a fine, fully developed performance by Ann Russell Whiteman as Isabel and exemplary, professional production values throughout. And even lesser Gurney still manages to dish up a handful of intriguing, thought-provoking themes about art and obsession.

Isabel, at the center of the play, is an elderly firecracker of a woman living a reclusive life in a Manhattan brownstone. She was once photographed in Life magazine while throwing a party for America’s literary lions. Her conversation is sprinkled with references to Hemingway, Conrad, Stein and most significantly, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Into her life comes Tom, played by Mathew Ahrens, an eager young graduate student who believes that Isabel is hoarding something significant to American literary scholarship (read: something that Tom can use to land a book deal).

Isabel sees young Tom’s eagerness and decides that he will suit a different purpose. He can be her granddaughter Virginia’s new boyfriend. Isabel is feeling her mortality, and she wants someone around to take care of Virginia, played by Tessa Gregory.

So Isabel entices Tom with the notion that she is in possession of a steamy “lost chapter” of “The Great Gatsby.” Tom chomps at the bait.

ART’s production, directed smoothly and with wit by Michael Weaver, works quite well in dealing with Gurney’s abstract themes. You can have a stimulating after-theater discussion on the question, “Does a ‘golden age’ really seem all that golden to those in the middle of it?”

However, in matters of character and motivation, Gurney’s script is not every exciting. He resorts to such clichés as having his main character collapse with heart palpitations at not just one, but two critical moments.

Whiteman is impressive throughout as a sly, fading, yet still dramatic grand dame. At first, I thought her mannerisms tended toward the histrionic, until the script makes clear: Isabel was, and still considers herself to be, a highly dramatic actress. That explains the use of the back of the hand to the forehead.

Ahrens brings a fine, single-minded intensity to his role. He makes Tom seem not just ambitious, but dangerously needy. It’s easy to see him getting sucked into Isabel’s transparent plot.

Gregory brings a sweet and charming naiveté to the role of Virginia, which puts us immediately on her side. Yet as the play progressed, I wondered if she hadn’t been a little miscast.

Virginia, according to Gurney’s words, should be a drunk and ne’er do well. Gregory seems so much more innocent and likable – but should she be?

So this was a solid if unspectacular start to the ART season. If you want more excitement, you can always look forward to the verbal fireworks of George Bernard Shaw and the comic chaos of Alan Ayckbourn as the season continues.

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