John Benjamin Hickey and Allison Janney in The Autumn Garden
(© Carol Rosegg)
John Benjamin Hickey and Allison Janney in The Autumn Garden
(© Carol Rosegg)
Lillian Hellman called The Autumn Garden her favorite play, but it's an opinion that hasn't seemingly been shared by directors and artistic directors, who have rarely touched the 1951 drama since its Broadway debut. The Williamstown Theatre Festival's current production, exquisitely acted by an all-star cast headed by Allison Janney and sensitively directed by David Jones, is likely to both spark future productions and change many people's opinion of the work. But for all its decided strengths, the WTF rendering also highlights its many challenges.

Set in the summer of 1949 in a Louisiana Gulf Coast home -- gorgeously designed here by Thomas Lynch, The Autumn Garden is a leisurely three-hour work, in which plot plays a decided second fiddle to conversation and mood. A play which clearly owes the occasional stylistic debt to Anton Chekhov, Eugene O'Neill, and Tennessee Williams, The Autumn Garden is full of characters deep in denial, disillusionment, disappointment, and destruction -- self and otherwise -- which makes them problematic company at best. And in lesser hands than this extraordinarily estimable ensemble, they could be downright insufferable.

The summer home is owned by the barely-making-it Constance Tuckerman (Janney, making a welcome if not-too-flashy return to the stage), who has spent the past two decades longing for lost love Nicholas Denery (a properly charismatic John Benjamin Hickey), a failed painter who has decided to finally make a return visit to Louisiana, with his uber-sophisticated yet self-hating wife Nina (Jessica Hecht, superb as always).

On hand for the homecoming are old friend Ned Crossman (Rufus Collins, dressed to look like Hellman's longtime beau Dashiel Hammett), a banker who has transferred his former love for Constance into a love for the bottle; middle-aged widow Carrie Ellis (the very fine Cynthia Mace) and her young, homosexual-but-nobody-admits it son Frederick (the handsome Eric Murdoch) and her sharp-tongued, worldly-wise mother Mary (the peerless Elizabeth Franz, who walks away with the show with her withering witticisms); and the unhappily married General Benjamin Griggs (a fine Brian Kerwin) and his ditzy-but-smarter-than-she-seems wife Rose (the absolutely brilliant Maryann Plunkett).

Last but not least is Constance's niece, Sophie, a French teenager whom she has rescued from occupied Europe, and who is prepared to enter into a loveless marriage with Frederick -- until Nick's carelessness gives her a way out. Easily the most mysterious and complex of Hellman's menagerie, she is brought to unmistakably vivid life by Mamie Gummer, who appears to have inherited both mama Meryl Streep's acting talent and her fluency with accents.

By show's end, truths are revealed, lies are exposed, hearts are laid bare, hypocrisy is unearthed, and yet Hellman, among the most dour of writers, fashions an almost happy ending from even the bitterest of circumstances. More miraculously, she -- and this stunning cast -- have allowed us to feel empathy for these benighted souls, many set to face their own unhappy autumn.

Could The Autumn Garden now come to Broadway? Perhaps, though most likely under the auspices of the Roundabout rather than a commercial producer, due to what surely would be a very high cost. Then again, there was buzz aplenty in Williamstown about possible transfers of the previous mainstage production, The Corn Is Green with Kate Burton (which I sadly missed) and the final Nikos Stage production, Kathleen Turner's spot-on revival of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, with Jennifer Dundas, Sarah Paulson, and the especially radiant Lily Rabe pitch-perfect as those way offbeat MacGrath sisters, superbly supported by Chandler Williams, Kali Rocha, and Patch Darragh.

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Mark Nelson, Lisa Banes and Xanthe Elbrickin Mrs. Warren's Profession
(© Kevin Sprague)
Mark Nelson, Lisa Banes and Xanthe Elbrick
in Mrs. Warren's Profession
(© Kevin Sprague)
New York doesn't need another revival of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, especially since the Irish Rep did it so well just recently. Even if it did, I wouldn't suggest bringing down Anders Cato's tonally troublesome production from the Berkshire Theater Festival. Still, I might recommend making a trip up there before September 1 just to see Lisa Banes give a gloriously gutsy performance in the title role.

Taking her cue from Shaw's description of the prostitute-turned-wealthy bordello owner as a "vulgarian," Banes' Kitty Warren is no lady beneath her ultra-fine finery. Instead, she's a barely tamed guttersnipe without shame, pretense, or undue apology -- all of which makes her the winner over her seemingly free-thinking but ultimately conventional daughter Vivie (played with a tad too much ice and too little fire by Tony Award nominee Xanthe Elbrick) in their battle semi-royale.

The tete-a-tete scenes between the two women are the clear highlight of the play, even if Cato might be advised to turn the volume down a notch. Just as he turns all of the play's dramatic scenes on a slightly too-high-flame -- at one point, you expect Walter Hudson's Sir George Crofts to twirl his mustache a la Snidely Whiplash if he had one -- he practically turns the comedic ones into some bad ABC sitcom.

The usually wonderful Mark Nelson has clearly been directed to overdo every aspect of Praed, the shockingly obtuse architect, and Stephen Temperley's facial expressions as the Reverend Gardner are all too ready for their closeup. Ironically, the show's one actual TV star, Randy Harrison (now a BTF veteran) manages to give the most understated performance as the good-for-little Frank Gardner.

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Should you make it to the Berskhires to see these shows, or maybe just for the fall foliage, theater lovers should add two stops to their itinerary. First is The Williams College Museum of Art, which is showcasing an excellent exhibition, Making It New: The Art and Style of Gerald and Sara Murphy. This enlightening look at the Golden Age couple who befriended and supported such luminaries as Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, and even Ms. Hellman -- not to mention best pals Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald -- contains paintings, letters, photographs, even carefully framed drawings by the young Murphy children.

Also on your agenda should be the new Stage and Story Gallery in Stockbridge. Owner Neil Blumstein is displaying and selling costume and scenery sketches from local theaters, such as BTF and Shakespeare and Company, as well as works by Broadway designer Gregg Barnes, including sketches from Legally Blonde, The Drowsy Chaperone, and the Kennedy Center production of Mame. Go to www.stageandstory.com for more details.