‘Spring Storm’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by May 23, 2018

‘Spring Storm’ is a play written by Tennessee Williams in 1937, when he was twenty-six years old. The play’s original title was ‘April is the Cruellest Month’ from the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’. Due to poor reviews, both in his university writing class and the Press, the play did not premiere in America until 1995 and in Europe until 2009.

This fresh and unusual character study is being presented by the Performing Arts Association of Notre Dame Australia (PAANDA) each Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at 7:00 pm until 2nd June.

There are three venues listed for the performances, 19 Mouat Street and the Prindiville Hall, University of Notre Dame, 25 Muont Street, Fremantle and a google link to the venue varies between Mount Pleasant and Morley with lots of Mount streets suggested. The former address is correct; there is no 25 Muont Street. However, the warm welcome from Ana Ferreira Manhoso’s front of house team, Troy Coelho and the innumerate Tessa Harris (in joke) was a pleasure.

 

The scene: is spring 1937 in Port Tyler, a small town in the ‘deep south’, on the Mississippi River during the Great Depression.

The sets: Faced with a tight budget Edward Blake (the production finance officer), and the production supervisor, Justine Ralph wanted a memorable production.

Carmel Mohen created an inventive set design that is truly inspired. Lover’s leap was a park bench on a grassy knoll, with two adjacent trees (two wooden stepladders painted brown with vegetation attached) – most effective.

The Critchfield’s sitting room had a beautiful cream, Italian-styled, chaise longue sofa, a standard lamp and a whatnot. On the other side of the fireplace were tall bookshelves, two leather armchairs and a drinks trolley with an old radio on top. Above the fireplace was a large oil painting of Colonel Wayne in his Civil War uniform staring down at everyone.

This set creation was managed by Isabel Browne and Ana Ferreira Manhoso. The props manager, and there were many tricky to source items, supplied by Mary Dunne and her assistant, Jake Fitzpatrick.

Catherine Acres’ was aided in her sensitive lighting design, by Toni Maree Olton. There were some great slow fades and realistic storm effects.

The subtle sound design was the skilled work of ‘Monte’fiore Nathan and associate Thomas Desmond. The preshow request to turn off mobiles was presented as though from a scratchy phonograph – good idea. The sound effects were at a perfect low level, and were crisp and precise.

Stage manager, Carmel Mohen and her assistant Jessica Dening, along with their stage hands Zakaria Hourani, James Boucaut and John Ogilvie were highly efficient. Each person knew in advance the item to be removed or installed. The team moved in (a touch slowly – move in as soon as the lights dim) silently and with good teamwork.

      The play opens on Lover’s Leap, a windy bluff over the Mississippi River. The weather is calm, but the amber sunset slowly changes as a storm approaches. The storm intensifies with the strained relationship of the key characters, Heavenly and Hertha.

 

       Heavenly Critchfield (Ella Gorringe) is an attractive young woman, whose father Oliver (Michael Allan) once was wealthy, but is now almost broke. Heavenly is not shy to use her sensuous charms to attract a man, but her boyfriend Dick Miles (Tennessee Buti) tries hard to get her and is rejected.

       Back at home, Heavenly’s snobbish, hypochondriacal mother, Mrs. Esmerelda Critchfield (Abbey Morris) and Heavenly’s caring aunt Lila (Alannah Pennefather) are in the living room recalling old friends who, when they were young women, chose not to marry. Later in life they ended up seated on their verandas, lonely.

       When Heavenly mentions Dick, her mother is furious that her fine daughter should even consider such a lowly person, especially when a handsome, rich young man, Arthur Shannon (Matthew Jones) is available to marry for his family status. Arthur is shy and totally lacking in confidence; he went to school in England and was badly bullied. On hearing her mother’s drama queen ranting, sweet Heavenly becomes fiery, and challenges her. After all, being in your early twenties, when your mother orders you to do something, you do the opposite.

      Next day at a family gathering, Heavenly and Dick are arguing. Dick wants to live on a river barge and work on the river, the most menial of jobs. Also there are the town gossips, Mrs Lamphrey (Harriet Lobegeiger) and a local newspaper reporter, Agnes Peabody (Kirralee Coulter), who are having the times of their lives digging up the dirt on the townsfolk. Henry (Thomas Bloffwitch), the son of Mrs Asbury (Virginia Cole), and Mrs Lamphrey’s daughter Susan (Georgia Varris) are showing interest in each other, but could it be Heavenly that Henry really lusts after?

         Arthur calls at the Critchfields’ home, hoping to date Heavenly, but he lacks confidence. The couple do not seem to have any common interests, and so she runs away to find Dick Miles. Depressed by Heavenly’s rejection, Arthur become drunk and seeks passion from a neurotic, ‘dried up old maid’, Hertha (Astrid Dainton) who works in the local library with Miss Schlagmann (Rachel Porter) who has never married.

         Who will marry? And to whom?

 

The stunning costumes were obtained or made by costumes’ manger Lowri Cox, and her assistants Natasha Guest and Savannah Seth. The dresses were perfect for the period, beautifully tailored and precisely chosen for the characters wearing them. The outfits were not solely ‘the garments’, but consideration had been given to their hats, shoes, makeup and hair (artists were Savannah Seth and Natasha Guest supervised by Emily Paskov). The colours selected immediately confirmed the wearers’ personalities, such as bright, pastel shades for Heavenly and drab beige for Hertha. Everyone’s garments were amazing, and I am sure were a real pleasure to wear – except perhaps Hertha’s pointed tan shoes, ouch.

The director, Courtney McManus, must have been mad to take on a play that is so rarely produced, and that demands cast interaction at so many levels. The work and skills required are mind-numbing. The tortured mind of Hertha, the sensuous Heavenly and her stormy relationship with her mother were superbly demonstrated. Arthur’s frustration at knowing precisely what he wants, but not having the courage to go for it. The small community bitchiness and jealousy were clearly established. The accents – and often the Deep South is overacted and far too strong – but here almost all of the actors voices matched and the accents not too jarring. Well done Courtney.

This is a powerful play, presented impeccably by a talented team. Many congratulations.