Travels With My Aunt
The Keen Company brings Graham Greene's comical novel to life at Theatre Row.
"Never presume yours is a better morality," says the eccentric, uninhibited title character in Travels With My Aunt, Giles Havergal's adaptation of Graham Greene's comical novel now playing at Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre. Or to put it another way, live in whatever way feels right. It's a surprising message coming from Roman Catholic writer Greene, whose novels often deal with more solemn, serious themes. But Havergal's theatrical version, first produced in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1989, revels in the way worldliness can make us wise about ourselves. Under artistic director Jonathan Silverstein's direction, this Keen Company production is an inventive piece of theater that is elevated by the delightful performances of its four actors, who play no fewer than two dozen roles.
Havergal took a lighthearted approach to Greene's novel about Henry Pulling and his unlikely adventures with his free-spirited, septuagenarian Aunt Augusta (played with Wildean drollness by Thomas Jay Ryan). Henry's role is acted by all four performers, dressed identically in banker's attire (Jennifer Paar's impeccable three-piece suits with pocket-watch chains are complemented by spiffy bowlers). In addition to the part of Aunt Augusta, the superb Ryan plays the bachelor Henry, while the rest of the exceptional cast — Jay Russell, Dan Jenkins, and Rory Kulz — occasionally jump into the character, an effect that might initially confuse, but that quickly gives way to an energizing complexity of Henry's personality as he learns to break from his safe, flower-centric world.
Henry has been content with humdrum days, many of which he spends tending to his beloved dahlias, since retiring from banking two years ago. When his mother dies, he attends her funeral and runs into his Aunt Augusta, a free-thinking, eccentric sort who blithely reveals to him that his mother was not his mother — she died a virgin, unlike his deceased father, who, Aunt Augusta says, was prone to "spells of activity." She also has no compunction about discussing the many lovers she's known in her lifetime, including the black man from Sierra Leone, Wordsworth, with whom she currently cohabits. The 75-year-old cannot fathom an existence that revolves solely around dahlias, so she invites her nephew to travel. Thus begins a whirlwind series of excursions, filled with unexpected intrigue, to Paris, Istanbul, and Paraguay, where Henry unearths all sorts of secrets about his aunt and himself, including his desire to live more adventurously.
In addition to the production's funny performances, Silverstein creates the feel of travel onstage by keeping the actors and the scenery in motion. Steven C. Kemp's boxy set — a large rectangular London house, which revolves to become a South American villa, together with various cubes jutting from the backdrop — reflects Henry's confined, bankerly existence, while the images of clouds painted on the backdrop suggest the wide-open horizons that Aunt Augusta beckons him toward. Josh Bradford's subtle lighting helps shift the scenes by illuminating objects that are revealed when hidden doors are opened in the set. One compartment holds a row of Henry's dahlias when we're in his garden, a small model of the Eiffel Tower plopped into a recess in the wall takes us to Paris. Along with Ryan's brilliant depiction of Aunt Augusta, this simple yet effective stagecraft distinguishes the production as a well-crafted piece of theater.
Anyone who has ever traveled can attest to the life-changing discoveries one can make about oneself while away from home. Henry's travels make us wish that we had an Aunt Augusta to break us out of our own workaday world. But until she comes along, Travels With My Aunt is a trip worth taking.