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Theater Review: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife

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After a year, W. Somerset Maugham’s enduring Constant Wife is back on stage in Southern California. As an Old Globe staging suggested last year, Maugham’s literary powers were in full-enough flower in 1926 that this message comedy rings true 80 years later. What might have been dismissed when it premiered as a prescription for infidelity can now be seen as a primer on how best to insure a shared marriage yoke.

A script this well crafted should work with any cast capable of staying out of the story’s way. However, the cast that director Art Manke has assembled at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 10 makes this an especially good night for Mr. Maugham. Only an imposing and oddly garish set, which will be addressed, undressed, and redressed later, earns the production any demerits.

Chief among the acting assets is Megan Gallagher as Constance, the titular spouse. Before Ms. Gallagher’s first entrance, Mr. Maugham prepares us for a pitiable woman who is unaware that her husband is cheating with her best friend. From her gait to her gaze, Ms. Gallagher quickly dispels such notions and establishes Constance as a study in steadiness – a woman unlikely to be victimized.

Ethel Barrymore created this character on Broadway and enjoyed a 300-performance run. Mr. Maugham is quoted as saying her performance was the best he had seen in any play he had written. She set the bar high, but Ms. Gallagher serves the tradition well. Here, Constance looks to be comfortable with early middle age, dressing and coiffing without need to deceive, yet maintaining a beauty that will reward the constancy of still-smitten Bernard Kersal (Kaleo Griffith), who last saw her 15 years before, following her rejection of his marriage proposal.

Mr. Maugham gives mixed signals as to whether or not Constance is able to leave her husband John (Stephen Caffrey), or even wants to. When another friend (Ann Marie Lee) offers the chance for her to get out of the house and enter business, she confesses she is happy at home. Is it a case of the emptiness she knows being preferable to the one she doesn’t? Ms. Gallagher’s performance seems to project a woman who has lived a life of her choosing.

She chose John over Bernard because he seemed the less devoted. After an initial five years of passionate love, theirs eased into the love between devoted friends. When John's affair with Marie Louise (Libby West) is disclosed, Constance reveals she knew about it but saw no percentage in exposing it and risking divorce. “I never understood why a woman should give up her home, a considerable part of her income and having a man around the house to take care of all the tiresome chores.”

The extramarital outing occurs in the presence of the still-obsessed Kersal – who Mr. Griffith gives a winning blend of matinee idol looks and mid-level intelligence. In her mind, John’s philandering and the public humiliation it brought has earned Constance a Free Affair Coupon. With the debonair Kersal at the ready, she sets in motion a plan to gain financial equality, sample passion one last time, and afford John the bitter taste of the cuckold’s medicine.

A large gilded birdcage, with its own special, supports the production’s metaphor of constant confinement. So, too, does the floor-to-ceiling grid of upstage windows. Long diaphanous drapes of focus-yanking blue laze against those windows, and some ugly, pedestal-borne sculpture further force the set and actors towards the apron. The company's downstage confinement will be explained. Until then, our attention is drawn to the drapes, a garish chandelier, and this odd wall of sitting room windows. (It’s especially ironic that when a set design is actually attributed to a character on stage – and a character, Constance, whose independence will be dependent on her decorating – it looks so tacky.)

Of the rest of the cast, Mr. Caffrey, a favorite for his recent turn in SCR’s Bach at Leipzig, creates a blustery Dr. John, a bit of a blowhard beneath a constantly knitted brow. West earns her laughs as Constance's conscienceless pal. Monette Magrath keeps younger sister Martha animated, if perhaps too young. John-David Keller, Andrew Borba, and Carolyn Seymour round out the cast.

In a beautiful directorial coda that shows Constance in Italy (and explains the windows and the crowded stage), Mr. Manke sets Constance free. It's a fine, hard-won stage moment suggesting that freedom is its own reward. The fact that she is heading back into a different kind of marriage seems to make this lovely flourish a bit beside the point. The triumph to relish is not John’s defeat, but in forcing him to accept her as his true equal. That actor final face off, which normally signals lights out, should be just desserts enough.

CREDITS by W. Somerset Maugham, directed by Art Manke; Angela Balogh Calin, sets/costumes; Peter Maradudin, lights; Steven Cahill, sound; Lea Chazin/Hethyr Verhoef, stage management  WITH  Andrew Borba, Stephen Caffrey, Megan Gallagher, Kaleo Griffith, John-David Keller, Ann Marie Lee, Monette Magrath, Carolyn Seymour, Libby West

Pasadena Playhouse  May 4-June 10, 2007 (opened May 12, reviewed 5/12)

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