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When We Are Married

The institution of marriage is taking some hard knocks in local theatres these days, with the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of J.B. Priestley's situational comedy When We Are Married running across town from the Germinal Stage Denver's production of George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell.

(Left to right) Sam Gregory as Herbert Soppitt, Larry Paulsen as Albert Parker, and John Hutton as Joseph Helliwell
(L to R) Sam Gregory as Herbert Soppitt,
Larry Paulsen as Albert Parker,
and John Hutton as Joseph Helliwell
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Don Juan, the aspiring Übermench, posits that marriage is rooted in the nurturing instincts of women, particulary toward their children. Fair enough, given the legacy of male primogeniture, starting in the Neolithic Age.

DON JUAN. Let us face the facts, dear Ana. The Life Force respects marriage only because marriage is a contrivance of its own to secure the greatest number of children and the closest care of them. For honor, chastity and all the rest of your moral figments it cares not a rap. Marriage is the most licentious of human institutions—

ANA. Juan!

THE STATUE. [protesting] Really!—

DON JUAN. [determinedly] I say the most licentious of human institutions: that is the secret of its popularity. And a woman seeking a husband is the most unscrupulous of all the beasts of prey. The confusion of marriage with morality has done more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other single error. Come, Ana! do not look shocked: you know better than any of us that marriage is a mantrap baited with simulated accomplishments and delusive idealizations. When your sainted mother, by dint of scoldings and punishments, forced you to learn how to play half a dozen pieces on the spinet which she hated as much as you did—had she any other purpose than to delude your suitors into the belief that your husband would have in his home an angel who would fill it with melody, or at least play him to sleep after dinner? You married my friend Ottavio: well, did you ever open the spinet from the hour when the Church united him to you?

As Shaw saw it in 1903, marriage comes at a great cost. If you doubt that, prepare to laugh at your bourgeois sentimentality when three long-married couples, friends all, discover that their marriages, performed in a triple ceremony, aren't sanctified.

Writing 35 years later (1938), Priestley brings Shaw's discussion down to earth, persuasively arguing both the feminine and masculine perspectives on the upside and downside of marriage, using an hilarious sequence of events to make his points. The depth of the Denver Center Theatre Company's ensemble, along with some talented new faces, makes this a memorable comedy.

(Left to right) Jeanne Paulsen as Maria Helliwell, Kathleen McCall as Annie Parker, Leslie O'Carroll as Clara Soppitt, and Kathleen M. Brady as Mrs. Northrop
(L to R) Jeanne Paulsen as Maria Helliwell,
Kathleen McCall as Annie Parker,
Leslie O'Carroll as Clara Soppitt,
and Kathleen M. Brady as Mrs. Northrop
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Albert (Larry Paulsen) and Annie (Kathleen McCall) Parker, and Herbert (Sam Gregory) and Clara (Leslie O'Carroll) Soppitt—gather at the at Helliwells (Joseph [John Hutton] and Maria [Jeanne Paulsen]), whose maid, Ruby Birtle (Sarah Manton) is supplemented for the occasion by a hired hand, Mrs. Northrop (Kathleen M. Brady). The Helliwells' niece, the comely Nancy Holmes (Allison Pistorius) is a house guest. She's being courted by the handsome and clever, Gerald Forbes (Benjamin Bonenfant), much to the consternation of the Helliwells. But Forbes has an ace up his sleeve, which precipitates a re-evaluation of the three marriages by all six parties, in turn tempering their outlook on his relationship with Nancy.

Sarah Manton as Ruby Birtle and Benjamin Bonenfant as Gerald Forbes
(Sarah Manton as Ruby Birtle
and Benjamin Bonenfant as Gerald Forbes
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
As the tables turn, the mercurial shifts in perspective are pure fun: the slapstick of O'Carroll's dominant Clara and Gregory's cowering Herbert offers a reverse fun-house mirror of Larry Paulsen's controlling Albert and McCall's meek Annie. Then the mirror is turned upside down and inside out, revealing the skeletons in the closet of Hutton's sober Joseph and Jeanne Paulsen's stoic Maria, who bear the hilarious brunt of Brady's tipsy Northrop.

Allison Pistorius as Nancy Holmes and Jake Walker as Fred Dyson
Allison Pistorius as Nancy Holmes
and Jake Walker as Fred Dyson
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
If there is any distraction from the hilarity, it would be in the varieties of Yorkshire dialect, one of the more difficult to master. At the time that the story takes place (1907), there were, truth be told, a wide variance of idioms within the district, but theatre dialect is supposed to be respresentation, not actual; so, one is left to wonder whether the variations are representative, or due to the difficulty of the substitutions for the actors. Manton, a native of those parts, sets the tone early on, with a working class patois; but from there, it's anyone guess as to which areas of the district the speech can be traced, or whether the alcoholic consumption of the characters is a factor ;-)

All of this emotional mayhem is played out on Vicki Smith's stylish set. Director Bruce K. Sevy does wonders with this old chestnut, carefully roasting it on an open fire, as it were, just in time for holiday season.

The Denver Center Theatre's presentation of When We Are Married runs through December 16th. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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