Chad Davies as Gerald and Diahanna Davidson as Susan. Photo by Steve Barto
By Philip Pearce
I AM AN Alan Ayckbourn fan from way back. He is author of some of the best darkly comic satires of English suburban life written in the twentieth century. In Absurd Person Singular he takes a sardonic swipe at suburban greed and social class snobbery. Man of the Moment is a devastating picture of the crass dishonesty of the popular media. And in the masterful and frighteningly funny Henceforward he presented, years ahead of its time, a world in which robots not only do domestic chores but solve complicated domestic emotional problems.
So I headed to Santa Cruz for the opening night of Jewel Theatre Company’s production of Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind with high hopes and a sense of excitement. Once in my theater seat, I watched a skilled company of players in a pleasantly mounted and sharply directed presentation of a script that had arresting moments of pathos and dark comedy but (for me) lost its plan and purpose as it moved too slowly toward the final blackout.
The premise is interesting. Throughout, we’re inside the mind of an unhappy middle class British housewife named Susan who’s been knocked out in her garden when she stepped on a rake. We see her nursed back to consciousness by a sympathetic but awkward local doctor named Bill Windsor. But as they await the arrival of an ambulance, her long-standing fantasy life shifts into high gear and begins to collide more and more dangerously with the stodgy realities of everyday life. In place of her boring vicar husband Gerald she dives into a rose-covered Greer Garson fantasy world where a dapper alternative husband named Andy is all kisses and attentive adoration. Where her dreary real world sister-in-law Muriel provides the vicarage with inedible meals and occult efforts to contact a departed husband, there’s a dashing dreamed up younger brother named Tony who strides around a spacious estate playing strenuous tennis on a fantasy court and bagging local wild life with a hunting rifle. Where real life son Rick has escaped family conflict and parental interference in a new age cult which forbids members to speak to their parents, Susan escapes regularly into giggly girl confidences with her devoted fantasy daughter Lucy, who can’t stop praising her mum’s prowess as the author of best-selling historical romances.
The two worlds interact with such an increasing force that each scene ends with something that knocks Susan back into unconsciousness. The role, as with so many of Ayckbourn’s leading parts, makes big demands on the emotional range of the performer and Diahanna Davidson manages Susan’s spiritual roller coaster spirals and dives with tremendous energy and power. The people of her fantasy world and of what she perceives (we’re always and only in her mind) as her workaday life are realized with clarity and wit by the rest of the acting company. Shaun Carroll is a charming and animated Doctor Bill, who gradually becomes a link between the actual and the hallucinated families. As Susan’s husband Gerald, Chad Davies creates a stolid and platitudinous C of E (Church of England) bore with an underlying sincerity and a comic flair that make him more and more likeable as Susan descends deeper and deeper into vitriol and scorn. Gerald’s self-pitying sister Muriel (the resourceful and comic Diana Torres Koss) is saved from being just an unimaginative frump by sudden, startling invocations of her late husband Harry. Nat Robinson completes the real world family circle by arriving at the end of Act 1 as a refreshingly direct and truthful Rick.
The hallucinated family (Danielle Crook as a dolly-girl Lucy, David Arrow as a smarmily smitten Andy, Jimmy Allan as a relentlessly upper-crust Tony) project an initial sweetness that is campy enough to seem as fake as it is vulnerable. The dream trio become more and more vindictive as they pressure Susan into modes of attack against their real life counterparts.
But by Act 2 the script starts to load on too many conflicts and issues. Aiming perhaps at a challenging complexity, it just bogs down into complicated repetition and emotional overkill. Susan’s two worlds finally lock together as everybody, the real as well as the hallucinated, joins in a wild mish-mash send-up of earlier themes that is funny but happens too late to relieve the slow and often painful progression of plot crises that leads up to it.
Susan’s final collapse, as the lights of an arriving ambulance flicker on her motionless body, suggests that everything we’ve seen and heard all evening, “real” or “hallucinated,” has happened inside her head while she’s waited to be rushed to the hospital—or is it the morgue?
Whichever, a lot has happened while she’s been waiting. In the final analysis, it’s more than is easily absorbed and, for Alan Ayckbourn, surprisingly bereft of very much wider social significance.
Photo by Steve Barto