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The Constant Wife

The Gate Theatre brings its well-acted production of W. Somerset Maugham's classic comedy to the Spoleto Festival. logo
Caitriona Ni Mhurchu, Susan FitzGerald, Judith Roddy,
and Paris Jefferson in The Constant Wife
(© Shane McCarthy)
At first glance, the feminism in W. Somerset Maugham's comedy The Constant Wife, now being seen at the Spoleto Festival via the Gate Theatre's well-acted production, is amazingly evolved for 1926. Maugham's heroine, Constance Middleton (Paris Jefferson), has moved far beyond Ibsen's Nora Helmer's sense that she needs to venture into the world to begin an epic journey of self-actualization. In fact, by act two, Constance sounds closely akin to Gilda in Noel Coward's Design for Living, assured in her presumption that she is not just equal to men, she's even entitled to juggle two of them at the same time!

After holding her tongue about her husband John's infidelity, Constance astounds everyone onstage -- and a good portion of the audience -- by her diatribe. Constance has come to realize that she is little more than a kept woman with a wedding band, and financial independence would empower her to do as she wishes. After disclosing this cool socioeconomic analysis to her husband, she bides her time and ruthlessly takes the logical next steps.

But when we closely examine the machinery behind Maugham's plot development, we find that the author isn't quite ready to stand behind Constance's most audacious pronouncements and actions. If Constance's plunge into infidelity was fully justified by her economic independence and vanished connubial love, why does Maugham take such pains talking up Constance's retributive justification: the affair between her husband, John (Simon Coates), and her best friend, Marie-Louise (Jade Yourell).

Damage control is even more conspicuous in the play's denouement as the momentum of the story veers toward open marriage. John and Marie-Louise both lose interest in each other, conveniently short-circuiting that complication. Meanwhile, Constance's fling with old flame Bernard Kersal (Stephen Brennan) can only last six months because the fabulously successful businessman must ship off to China. It's all very tidy, yet still quite pointed as the final confrontation between Constance and John unfolds -- tellingly interrupted by the dissembling Bernard. In the end, John is thoroughly defeated and humiliated, dimly aware that he is living in an altered universe.

Jefferson's performance as Constance is something to marvel at. She realizes that the equipoise we misread as blithe, naïve ignorance at the outset need not alter radically when she seizes Machiavellian control. It's her sparkly geniality, in fact, that makes John's fury so apt -- and his loss so keen. Indeed, when Constance delivers her verbal bombs, Coates' apoplexy as John is hilariously un-British. Our shock at her sangfroid is nothing next to his.

Yourell goes a bit far with Marie-Louise, making her so vain and silly that you wonder how she could be Constance's friend at all, let alone her best one. But Yourell's little comic twist, combined with Coates' excesses, provide Michael James Ford as Marie-Louise's jealous husband sufficient license to enter like a raging wild boar. You don't expect a stage character named Mortimer to behave like a drunken Irishman, but it works here.

Constance's younger sister, Martha Culver, seems to be cut from the earnest, truth-telling cloth that George Bernard Shaw derided in Candida and Major Barbara, and Judith Roddy has her perfectly measured. The character of independent interior designer Barbara Fawcett basically exists to provide Constance with a lucrative path to independence, and while Caitríona Ní Mhurchú fills her slacks stylishly, she adds little else to the proceedings. (Amid all the wonders of dressmaking and millinery in Peter O'Brien's elegant costume designs, we certainly notice Barbara's slacks!)

Welcome infusions of urbanity come from Brennan as the perpetually-devoted Bernard, who is so avuncular as that we feel a pang because Constance cannot love him, and from Susan FitzGerald, who makes Mrs. Culver's acceptance of men's foibles as delicious as Constance's critiques.

People seated in front of me complained that they couldn't catch all the witty repartee. So sit as close to the Dock Street stage as you can get, since you don't want to miss a word of this classic comedy.

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