Love, marriage and infidelity — a vicious circle
Our preview of ‘The Circle,’ a 1921 work by Somerset Maugham that opens this week at the Peterborough Players
Lawler, Jill, conval, teacher
A circle can be a simple geometric shape, a chain of events that forms a connected whole, or a group of people who share a common interest, activity or upbringing. And while all of these apply to “The Circle” in Somerset Maugham’s 1921 Comedy of Manners that is currently being revived at the Peterborough Players, a more apt geometric metaphor is to look at two parallel love triangles that span two generations in an English aristocratic family.
When Arnold Champion-Cheney was only five, his mother Lady Katherine “Kitty” Champion-Cheney ran off with Lord Hugh Porteous, his father Clive’s best friend. At the time both men were rising stars in the House of Commons and this scandalous behavior brought about the end of both men’s political careers. Now, thirty years later, Arnold has taken over the family estate and remade it in his impeccable taste.
Circles always lead back to where they began, and in this family history has a funny way of repeating itself. Arnold’s pretty young wife of three years, Elizabeth, feels stifled by her life as just one of the decorative objects that he has assembled to create the appearance of perfect symmetry. Elizabeth, fascinated by the tale of his mother’s risking all for true love, has convinced him to invite the disreputable Lady Kitty and her paramour for a visit at the family estate. Arnold’s father Clive has appeared unexpectedly creating an opportunity for many unresolved relationships to be thrown into disarray.
Elizabeth has reasons of her own to want to meet the woman who followed her heart calling her behavior “thrilling” for she finds herself having feelings for another man, Teddie Luten, an expat rubber importer living Malaysia who is also their house guest.
When the play debuted in 1921, its subject matter was considered scandalous. In our current age of pervasive social media and much too much information about the behavior of public personalities, it seems pretty tame. While the play ponders the meaning of love and loyalty and presents dilemmas of gender and class roles, it is in the context of a world that is long gone. Despite the choices these characters have made, they are all people of privilege who have been handed everything, and can continue to live their lives in pursuit of pleasure.
Director Gus Kaikkonen has assembled a stellar cast to bring these characters to life and Charlie Morgan’s elegantly and meticulously designed drawing room provides the perfect setting for this intergenerational comedy of “manors.” Tom Frey, who has proved himself to be a versatile and talented performer over the past few seasons, is stuck in the role of Arnold, the hopeless prig whose two passions are decorating and his political career. It is a measure of Frey’s skill that this usually likeable performer makes Arnold so easy to dislike. Anderson Matthews’ Clive, who has all the best lines in the script, delivers them with ease and grace clearly enjoying this opportunity to see what the passage of time has wrought. Players’ stalwart Michael Page delivers another fine performance as Lord Porteous, to whom time has not been so gentle. Casey Jordan is Teddie, Elizabeth’s love interest.
The center of the play, however, belongs to the women. Karron Graves as Elizabeth displays the full gamut of emotions as she struggles with her own decision about whether to repeat the scandalous behavior of the previous generation or to stay and accept an empty life of comfort. Whenever Lisa Bostnar as Kitty is on stage, however, it is impossible not to be focused on her. The tarnished woman whose “soul is as rouged as her face” has tried to cheat the ravages of time through outlandish excess in her appearance and her behavior. At times, however, this façade drops and she shows that she knows she isn’t really fooling anyone, including herself.
Maugham has thrown all these people together in order to examine how the choices we make can affect not only our lives but also the lives of others. “You can do anything in this world if you are prepared to take the consequences,” says one of the characters in “The Circle.” The problem is, however, that these overindulged and privileged characters don’t really have to feel or accept the consequences at all. While some of the choices the characters make may surprise us, we are left with a sense that this circle will continue to come around and that no one has learned very much at all.
This is the kind of stylish period piece that the Players do so well. In the skilled hands of Director Kaikonnen,a talented cast, and great technical support “The Circle” invites us in to the manor house to spend an evening with people from another era. It is an evening well spent.