Two Charismatic Stars Cause Sparks in a Battle of the Sexes
LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE is thrilled to announce a sparkling tour de force showcase for the incomparable talents of JoBeth Williams (“Poltergeist,” “The Big Chill”) and Peter Strauss (“Rich Man, Poor Man,” “The Jericho Mile”), two legendary actors who are both currently starring in the World Premiere production of “Love Among the Ruins” in Laguna Beach. The play is based on the 1975 ABC Theatre Presentation by the same name that originally starred Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier.
Written by James G. Hirsch and Robert A. Papazian, with a clever script by James Costigan (adding much sophistication and wit), and produced in association with Papazian Hirsch Entertainment, this light, saucy romantic comedy is directed by veteran Michael Arabian (Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” “Tesla”). An utter delight from beginning to end, the show officially opened this past Sunday and will perform through Sunday, November 13th in the Moulton Theatre at the Laguna Playhouse.
The story is set in 1911 at the end of the Edwardian period. Wealthy widow and socialite Jessica Medlicott is an aging grande dame, formerly an actress of the London theatre, accused now of having met, courted, promised marriage to, and then jilted and abandoned her suitor. The much-younger ex-fiancé, a Naval officer, then files suit, seeking £50,000 in damages for the breach of promise by her.
She retains the greatest barrister in the empire, the highly respected, strait-laced lawyer, Sir Arthur Granville-Jones, to defend her. He is incidentally also a man she seduced and abandoned 40 years earlier, when she was a touring Shakespearean actress and he was a starving law student, leaving him to the cold, consolation of the law, but who has remained hopelessly in love with her nevertheless to this day, and now driven to hilarious distraction by her larger-than-life personality.
This beautifully written adaptation of the courtroom classic “Love Among the Ruins” is every bit as charming, ageless and delightful as the original film, which garnered a Peabody Award and multiple Emmys. It’s been called a national treasure, a shining testimonial to the glories of memory and dreams that deserve better than to become merely a memory itself.
Peter Strauss plays the never-married barrister Sir Arthur Granville-Jones, engaged to defend JoBeth Williams’ faded but scarcely diminished character, the widow Jessica Medlicott, against that breach-of-promise lawsuit brought by young opportunist Alfred Pratt (CJ Blaine Eldred, “Bernstein Dances”), claiming that she had agreed to marry him. Such lawsuits were not uncommon in the early twentieth century, but were usually brought by women against men.
Sir Arthur is excited to see Jessica because, when they were much younger (when she was playing in Toronto) they spent several intimate days and nights together, falling in love, before she moved on with the touring company. He’s surprised and saddened that she doesn’t seem to recognize him but continues to hope she will recall their affair as they prepare their arguments. The case doesn’t bode well for her. Headstrong, independent, and even imperious, she isn’t always amenable to legal advice and the friction often causes sparks between lawyer and client.
JoBeth Williams has a field day with the flamboyant Jessica, an indestructible woman who knows her mind and is unafraid to express exactly what she thinks. She wears sumptuous costumes — violets, deep greens, velvets, satin burgundy and silver trim—delivers intelligent, witty dialogue, and dominates the story. The play’s main appeal, as you may have guessed, is to relish how Jessica so easily toys with Sir Arthur’s affections in a sort of battle of the sexes. The charismatic presence and chemistry between the two stars is truly formidable.
Peter Strauss has the more subtle role of a man still carrying a place in his heart for his long-ago lover, and it’s a delight to see him handling writer James Costigan’s dialogue deftly and with perfect timing. In fact, the best moments of the play belong to Mr. Strauss. It’s in Sir Arthur’s summation, when he has to convince the jury that Jessica was the victim, not the predator. Throughout the long monologue, we see why this actor is still considered one of the greatest of his generation. With his careful pauses, facial expressions, and thoughtful presentation, his delivery is mesmerizing.
His Sir Arthur recounts what the jury has witnessed in court and provides a sympathetic portrait of Jessica as a victim to be pitied. During his summation, we see intermittent flashbacks as he thinks back to his weekend with Jessica forty years ago, a bittersweet, faraway look in his eyes.
Basically, it’s a comedy of manners with period elegance, set mostly in offices or in the courtroom, with a few exterior scenes to open it up a bit. The dialogue is so well written and the actors so uniformly high caliber that the limited settings are not a distraction. The early twentieth century period is captured perfectly through meticulous production and opulent costume design and subdued color palettes. The office of Sir Arthur and the courtroom feature rich, tawny browns, coffee and gold trimming and satin blacks. It’s only in Jessica’s final appearance in court that she illuminates the dull surroundings with her bright red dress and large red feather-plumed hat.
Notable accolades to the supporting cast, which includes outstanding performances from Wendy Worthington as Pratt’s mother, The Honourable Tom Shelton as the Judge, Tyee Tilghman as Sir John Frances Divine, Ava Burton, Katy Tang as Hermione Davis, Martin Kildare as Sir George Druise and Patrick Vest as Herbert.
Subsequent to “Love Among the Ruins,” writer Costigan was hired by Alfred Hitchcock to write the screenplay for a film called “The Short Night.” Many other actors and directors expressed admiration for the play, including Loretta Young, James Cagney, Christopher Walken, and Patrick Duffy. The film’s title comes from an 1855 poem by Robert Browning, which has been used as the title of a play by Elmer Rice, an episode of the TV series “Mad Men,” and an album by the rock band 10,000 Maniacs.
It’s an exquisite play, and an elegant comedy. But its exquisiteness, like the magnificent expressiveness of the lawyer’s stare as he gazes upon the woman whose loss to him has defined all his subsequent life, derives from the deepest pain; for as the plot moves toward its conclusion, the man must destroy his icon in order to save the woman — and she, as only the most gifted of players can manage onstage and off, must collaborate in this destruction to redeem them both.
THE LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS, LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, Written by Co-Producers James G. Hirsch and Robert A. Papazian (NBC’s “Inherit The Wind”); From a Film Script by Emmy Award Winner James Costigan (“Little Moon of Alban”), Produced in Association with Papazian Hirsch Entertainment; Directed by Michael Arabian (“Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks”); Scenic Designer: Stephen Gifford; Costume Designer: David Kay Mickelsen; Lighting Designer: Jared A. Sayeg; Sound Designer: Ian Scot; Projection Designer: Brian Gale; Properties Designer: Kevin Williams; Hair & Wig Designer: Allison Lowery; Dialect Coach: Joel Goldes; Production Stage Manager: Vernon Willet; Casting: Michael Donovan CSA, Mary Jo Slater CSA, Richie Ferris CSA.
WITH: JoBeth Williams (Films: “Poltergeist,” “The Big Chill,” “Kramer vs Kramer”); Peter Strauss (TV: “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “The Jericho Mile,” Brdwy: “Einstein and the Polar Bear”); Ava Burton as the Stenographer; CJ Blaine Eldred as Alfred Pratt; Martin Kildare as George Druise; Tom Shelton as Judge Philip Tandy; Katy Tang as Hermione Davis; Tyee Tilghman as Sir John Francis Divine; Patrick Vest as Herbert/Bailiff; and Wendy Worthington as Fanny Pratt. The understudy is Nick Molari.
“Love Among the Ruins” will run from October 26th through November 13th at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive in Laguna Beach. Performances will be Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 2PM & 7:30PM, Sundays at 1PM & 5:30PM. Added performances on November 3rd at 2PM, and November 8th at 7:30PM. Tickets range from $50-75 and can be purchased online at www.lagunaplayhouse.com or by calling (949) 497-ARTS.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Niedle