(l to r) Mark (Steven Carpenter) Joey (Christopher Herring) and Sebastian (Conrad Feininger)

Review: In Praise of Love at Washington Stage Guild

TheatreBloom rating:

 Every story tells a picture. The Washington Stage Guild has created quite the masterpiece with the story they are telling by bringing a Terence Rattigan work to the stage for the first time in Washington DC since the mid 70’s. In Praise of Love, Directed by Laura Giannarelli, is delightfully touching; a heart-warming slice-of-life drama that represents the epitome of a modern classic. With moment to moment realness that takes the audience into the reality of the characters, this inspiring tale rekindles the notion of love among amid crisis and wholeheartedly supports compassion in the family setting.

(l to r) Lydia (Julie-Ann Elliott) Joey (Christopher Herring) and Mark (Steven Carpenter)
(l to r) Lydia (Julie-Ann Elliott) Joey (Christopher Herring) and Mark (Steven Carpenter) C. Stanley Photography

The 1973 posh interior of the Crutwell flat in London looks appropriately scholarly; astutely befitting the newspaper columnist that resides there. Setting Designer Carl F. Gudenius lines the stage with bookshelves; each more filled than the one beside it with ancient tomes of literary purport. The furnishings are quaint; not overly cluttered but not too sparse either. Gudenius finds balance in the set; spatial division of entrances and exits leading to other areas in the flat all delineated with simple gaps in the bookcases. Much like the setting, the costumes— Designed by Sìgrid Jòhannesdòttir— are most befitting of the characters in their era. Jòhannesdòttir creates a sharp contrast with Lydia’s costumes in particular, the more casual chic look in the first act juxtaposed against elegant, albeit ostentatious, red and purple velvet and quilted dress in the second. This juxtaposition reflects the duality of Lydia’s internal nature; a strong representation of her formidable feminine side against her more delicate persuasions.

Director Lara Giannarelli brings well-paced dramatic essence to the stage with this production. Slice-of-life dramas often run the risk of feeling endless or moving too slowly through real time. Giannarelli avoids these traps masterfully with her precise execution of the script’s action as well as encouraging the verbose dialogue scenes to clip along at a trot rather than drawing them out in a more casual speed. Giannarelli   weights the silences with equal parts meaning as the heavy conversations throughout the production. There is often more felt in these silences, particularly between Mark and Sebastian at the end of Act I, because Giannarelli works the actors into a frenzied state of palpable emotional tension.

(l to r) Mark (Steven Carpenter) Joey (Christopher Herring) and Sebastian (Conrad Feininger)
(l to r) Mark (Steven Carpenter) Joey (Christopher Herring) and Sebastian (Conrad Feininger) C. Stanley Photography

Joey (Christopher Herring) is the fourth piece of the familial puzzle in Rattigan’s carefully constructed bisectional of family life. The political miscreant; fled far from the apple tree of the patriarch’s approval, Herring brings an easygoing energy to the character portrayal. Threaded appropriately in fringed pants with jackets and shirts that fit the 70’s, he arrives on the scene with a subtle flippancy that makes his character a kin to comic relief in this well-paced drama. Herring is springy and sprightly; youthful yet wise in his arrival, though his emotional outbursts speak of his childlike immaturity. For as base as these petulant moments are, his elative responses to pleasure are skywardly explosive, showcasing a dynamic versatility on Herring’s behalf. The antagonistic qualities that Herring coaxes out of Joey become ripe heated moments of debate between father and son.

Mark (Steven Carpenter) arrives as the off-beat American. Clearly irreverent with his place in English society, Carpenter eases his character’s displacement with simple charms and jovialities that encourage the audience to sympathize with him once his purpose in Lydia’s story is fully actualized. The raw exposed entanglement of emotions between Carpenter’s character and Lydia’s are intense and heighten the sense of reality in still moments where pauses float between Rattigan’s dialogue heavy beats.

Lydia (L- Julie-Ann Elliott) and Mark (R- Steven Carpenter)
Lydia (L- Julie-Ann Elliott) and Mark (R- Steven Carpenter) C. Stanley Photography

Lydia (Julie-Ann Elliott) is a versatile and perhaps volatile pistol. Elliott imbues the character with a sense of pride despite the blatant denial of her situation. Flagrantly disregarding her own restrictions she carries the character’s head high and plows forward through the daily necessities of the play’s actions. Elliott’s accent is the most notable among the dialects featured in the production; her strong Estonian sound concise and consistent. Shifting like a malleable substance Elliott makes the character a bit like lava; hot and tempestuous when riled but smooth and solid when cooled. Her moments of comfort felt strongly in Carpenter’s arms show her ability to be at ease one moment and alert and laced with tension the next. The bickering, which often escalates exponentially between she and her husband Sebastian (Conrad Feininger) is a driving point of the production. An extraordinarily exquisite performance is given by Elliott; Lydia’s story experienced as reality for all to witness.

Conrad Feininger as Sebastian Cruttwell
Conrad Feininger as Sebastian Cruttwell C. Stanley Photography

Feininger, as the curmudgeonly husband, delivers an equally awe-striking performance with his character’s duality. Cantankerous to a fault, Feininger empowers his verbose textualizations with an enthusiastic temper and a sharp biting delivery of sarcasm. Outwardly appearing as a bitter husk with a razor for a tongue, Feininger blows the audience away with the undiscovered side of his character late in Act II. The juxtaposition of the carefully constructed crotchety careless husband flushed against his emotional exposure is shocking; a moment of raw revelation that seeps into the mind and makes it stew upon what it is witnessing. Mastering the haunting tale of his wife’s survival in a voice barely audible, Feininger snatches the audience’s attention in that moment, and shakes it wildly with the scene that follows. A powerfully well-rounded performance, Feininger’s emotional expressions are the epitome of a character in his situation.

Things, beliefs, ideas, creeds, theories are so often less important than people. Only people really matter and the people in Washington Stage Guild’s production of this Terence Rattigan genius drama will prove that to any audience member wise enough to come see it.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

In Praise of Love plays through January 25, 2015 at The Washington Stage Guild— The Undercroft Theatre, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at 240-582-0050 or purchase them online.

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