Your Friends and Neighbors
The Constant Wife takes period piece and makes it feel contemporary

Constance Middleton appears to be oblivious to the affair her husband is having with her best friend. Constance’s sister, mother, and friend all drop hints about it, but she just frustratingly seems stuck in an illusion of a happy marriage. W. Somerset Maugham’s 1926 comedy The Constant Wife leads its audience along rather aimlessly for a while. You’re left waiting for a big blowup upon the reveal, waiting for the backlash, waiting for the breakdown, waiting for anything. You may even get a tad bored while you’re waiting for the payoff. But most people at last night’s official opening performance of The Gate Theatre’s production left thoroughly pleased with the end results and the overall experience.

Many people seem to dwell on the set and costumes, and while they are lovely and crucial to the actors’ portrayal, they shouldn’t be the focus of the production. Director Alan Stanford, in an interview with CP on Friday morning, said their main intent with the 1930s setting was to avoid the dreary reality of clothing from 1926 and to set up a comfort zone with the audience. “If you’ve got clothing that’s not particularly attractive or looks desperately old fashioned, it feels like they’re looking at a museum,” he explained. And with the slightly updated costumes, “now they’re looking at characters, not costumes.” Peter O’Brien’s elegant costumes, however, were certainly a big topic of discussion.

Despite the meandering plot, Stanford keeps things moving briskly, thankfully. He takes setups that would be absolutely flat in the hands of less capable directors (e.g., people sitting on couches talking to each other) and makes them rather brisk. He zooms through certain exchanges instead of lingering on them, to great effect, and the actors (particularly Jefferson) still relish every quick word.

With Wife, Stanford says, “Maugham has done what is most difficult for a male playwright to do — he’s written women in conversation.”

Although some critics debate the strength of the female roles, they have distinct personalities. When they engage in their debates about men and marriage, their topics, personalities, and even opinions could pass for the talk from a group of contemporary women on a girls’ night out.

Paris Jefferson, although she does appear about to crack from her plastered-on smile, manages to give Constance a warmth and likability despite what she exudes and what other characters remark upon: her distance and hardness. You hold out hope for Constance, and as Stanford says, “[Maugham] always manages to have his characters do what is satisfactory to the audience.”

Jade Yourell as Marie-Louise, the questionable best friend, is a bit obvious, but there almost has to be one character like that in plays such as these; otherwise the whole production could be very flat. She tells Constance, “You’re always so witty, and that always puts men off.”

Simon Coates as John, Constance’s philandering husband, perfectly embodies the “why would anyone have an affair with him? Oh wait, he’s a doctor” type. Stuffy, not incredibly charming or friendly, he finally brings some oomph to the table in the second half of the production with an extremely funny childish tantrum.

Judith Roddy as Constance’s good-hearted but meddling sister Martha, who’s “a terrible liar — even for a woman” (according to Constance); Caitríona Ní Mhurchú as friend Barbara; and Susan Fitzgerald as Mrs. Culver all turn in terrific performances. Mrs. Culver has most of the zingy one-liners, like “of course she’s happy: she dresses well, she sleeps well, and she’s losing weight.” Her true test of love is: “could you use his toothbrush?”

It’s not a production that’s going to knock your socks off in terms of shaking you to your core or moving you profoundly or even very emotionally at all. But it is fun, funny, biting, relevant, and a top-notch production. It’s a classic tale of the battle of the sexes, which audience members surely relate to, but it’s also more complicated than that. It’s amazing to think of The Constant Wife being written in 1926 by a homosexual man (but then again, see his contemporary Oscar Wilde, whose trial took place while Maugham was in his 20s). With some lines that even made the audience at the Dock Street gasp “Ooh!” in delicious naughty merriment, imagine them being said back then. At one point, Constance says that she, as a provided-for woman in a passionless marriage, is tired of being a “modern wife,” which she then defines as “a prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods.”

Stanford laughs when asked about The Gate’s reputation for providing “safe,” comfortable theatre. “The easiest thing in the world is to direct a play that is obscure or new or avant-garde,” he says. The most difficult is to take a play that people are familiar with, to go back to an old play, keep its initial intention, and still bring something new to it and make it lively, confirming that “that criticism doesn’t phase me.” He explains, “Our intention is always to do it to the best of the play’s ability…. If it’s a well-known play, you’ve got to exceed the audience’s expectations.”

Even if it’s not a well-known play, you also have to exceed the audience’s expectations for a Gate Theatre production. It seems he’s done so.

The Constant Wife • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$75 • (2 hours 30 min.)• May 27, 30, June 1, 3, 5, 8, 10 at 3:30 p.m.; May 27, 28, 30, June 1, 3, 5, 8, 9 at 8:30 p.m.; May 29, June 6 at 8 p.m.; • Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church Street • 579-3100