A Picture of Autumn
N.C. Hunter's 1951 play, now at the Mint Theater, foregoes the young ingénue, instead putting his poignant and intelligently designed vehicle in the capable hands of seasoned veterans.
Finally, the quirky old man who always has a story to tell, a ditty to hum, and a nap to take is not just a piece of furniture in a room full of young and rambunctious hooligans.
A Picture of Autumn is set in Wiltshire, England in 1951 and follows three aging members of the Denham family: the married Charles and Margaret Denham (played by Jonathan Hogan and Jill Tanner) and Charles' older brother Harry, (George Morfogen), as they crawl through life in a monotonous rut. They live together (usually sleeping away the days) in the overwhelmingly large and dilapidated Winton Manor, which is translated onstage into a strikingly elegant living room (designed by Charles Morgan). It's not a Grey Gardens situation quite yet, but the estate has been in their family's possession since 1762 and we would not at all be surprised to find that they themselves have been living there all those 189 years.
Director Gus Kaikkonen is faced with the challenge of making this exceedingly boring family of geriatric Brits engage an audience for almost two and a half hours. He gets off to a rocky start, with the first of the play's three acts moving somewhat sluggishly and Hunter's light-hearted wit landing heavier than the dialogue suggests it should. Barbara Eda-Young is delightful, though, as the 73-year-old senile nurse who wanders the house singing on endless loop "O Come All Ye Faithful" and force-feeding guests hot cocoa.
However, the play eventually finds its rhythm in the second and third acts, and we become surprisingly invested in the family's struggle to decide whether or not to sell their burdensome yet beloved estate. The sale is proposed by Charles and Margaret's pragmatic and thoroughly dull son, Robert (Paul Niebanck), who comes to visit Winton Manor with his wife, Elizabeth (Katie Firth), and teenage daughter, Felicity (Helen Cespedes). Harry delivers some crotchety zingers while Margaret and Charles unintelligently deliberate the sale. His dry wit radiates an inner spirit that seems to bang at the walls of his shuffling old-man exterior. Though Harry's attachment to the estate is the strongest of all the Denhams, given the long history, he also seems to be the only one who is capable of grasping the concept of mortality and recognizing that stagnancy can only waste time, not freeze it.
Morfogen is particularly enthralling when he shares the stage with Cespedes who, in this crowd, appears to literally glow with youth. She inspires the same energy in him as her character, Felicity, inspires in Harry. The spitting image of his long-deceased wife, Harry is immediately drawn to Felicity, leaving it to us to decide whether to find the close bond that they develop completely adorable or entirely inappropriate. As a hopeless sucker for grandfatherly charm, I am tempted to err on the side of adorable, though this could also be attributed to my preoccupation with the far more troubling hints of a past (and possibly current) romantic relationship between Robert's dissatisfied wife, Elizabeth, and his younger spitfire brother, Frank. Frank is played by the energetic Christian Coulson, whose newly grown mustache, unfortunately, can't wash away our memory of him as the prepubescent Tom Riddle from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Even for those who may not be familiar with his Harry Potter notoriety, Coulson comes across as far too young for the mature Elizabeth, even in the fantasy world in which their improbable relationship exists.
This peripheral storyline, nevertheless, threads together the experiences of each of the three generations represented onstage, reminding us that complacency is not just a trait of the old. Elizabeth finds her predictably unsatisfying marriage reassuring, just as the Denhams have grown comfortable with the discomfort of living at their crumbling family estate. Subtle hints suggest that even Felicity is fated to follow in the footsteps of her elders.
Those among the under-30 crowd who have solemnly vowed to never become their parents or grandparents will find this insinuation particularly haunting. No, we are not all doomed to a fate of incoherent humming or all-day napping. However, we would be wise to take Hunter's words like Circe's warnings to Odysseus, and prepare to resist the siren calls echoing from our own personal Winton Manors.