Aliya Al-Hassan reviews Springs Eternal at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, showing until October 19
Over the years the Orange Tree Theatre has become synonymous with bringing unknown plays to life; Susan Glaspell was a Pulizer-Prize winning playwright who also founded the Provincetown Players in 1915, the first modern American theatre company. Her work has been often overlooked since her death, but the Orange Tree has the accolade of producing more Glaspell plays than any other theatre in the world. Springs Eternal was her last play and this production is its world premiere.
The setting is a middle class New York home in 1943. America is at war and writer Owen Higgenbothem (Stuart Fox) is struggling to work, weighed down by guilt over his liberal book which he believes encouraged many young men to go and fight. Then comes news of an elopement between his charge Dottie (Lydia Larson) and his ex-wife’s new husband Stewie (David Antrobus). The play develops into a dysfunctional family gathering where past relationships, present turmoil, and hopes for the future are dissected under the ever-present shadow of war.
The play highlights the question of the effect an older generation’s values has upon their children and if those children must act upon these ideals or follow their own. It also addresses the purpose of war and the ever-continuing hope for the future.
Overall, the cast is strong. Stuart Fox is particularly convincing as the disillusioned and disappointed writer Owen. His American accent is also very consistent, which cannot be said for a number of the rest of the cast. Auriol Smith plays the wise charlady Mrs Soames to great effect, contrasting the dubious attitudes towards love, morality and honour of the assembled family. Miranda Foster also plays Owen’s flighty ex-wife Harry with convincing vacuousness, bringing comic relief to some of the darker points of the play.
There are moments of brilliant dialogue; an explosive exchange between Owen and Mrs Soames leads her to question the morality of the family, only for him to deftly turn her argument on its head. However, at points the play is frustrating. The narrative often goes round in circles and is overly wordy, as though Glaspell was writing notes rather than a finished play.
There are some fine comedic moments and the theme of personal frustration through the generations at a time global unrest is both thought provoking and very relevant today. The main criticism of the play is it is too long. At nearly three hours in length, there are many repetitions and a lacklustre ending. The comic subplot of the supposed elopement feels like it belongs to another play and does not sit easily with the serious main plotline of young men dying in a war in the hope of a better tomorrow. The love match at the end of the play also feels flat and unconvincing. It is not always clear what Glaspell wants the play to be as it veers from wannabe farce to a serious social commentary.
Springs Eternal clearly demonstrates Glaspell’s close engagement with the cultural and moral issues of her day, but this is certainly not one of her best plays. At the end, audiences may find it hard to see what her true message was.
Springs Eternal, Orange Tree Theatre; until Oct 19; box office: 020 8940 3633