by Michael Bowen & r & The library's getting flooded, and you're alone in a room with a baby and a lost chapter from Moby Dick. Which do you save? If you're Tom, the ambitious young scholar of American lit in A.R. Gurney's The Golden Age, then Captain Ahab gets the life preserver. The baby can learn to swim on his own.
That's because fame -- the glory of adding to the transcendent values of literary history -- far outshines the petty troubles that any one person has. Some woman has a few problems? Forgotten tomorrow. Literature is for the ages.
In Gurney's drama (through Sept. 10 in ARt's production at SFCC's Spartan Theater), an ambitious young academic has located a reclusive grande dame who claims to have known just about everybody who was famous back in the Roaring '20s. She has a few lower-grade historical keepsakes and may (or may not) have one spectacular literary gem; but what she definitely does have is a granddaughter -- needy, aimless, escaping into alcohol. Can "Gram" string the young man along, using the granddaughter as bait and the specter of a long-lost manuscript as the ultimate prize? Is the young man so intent on that prize that he would stifle his own feelings and toy with others'? Will noble minds overcome their last infirmity?
As Tom the academic, Mathew Ahrens looks the part but overacts. He's eager to make a major find, write a major book, get a major advance. But Ahrens' eagerness strikes a high note early in the evening and never wavers from it. He's so excited by every postcard from a famous author that he "has nowhere to go," as actors say -- there's no way to elevate the energy any higher.
In fairness, Ahrens needs to deliver high-voltage performance -- to move along a talky play, and to demonstrate the passion that at least some folks have for artifacts from a bygone era. But that creates an imbalance in the play's dominant conflict: Since the grand old lady has all the life experience (and a more common desire -- to leave a legacy, to provide for a loved one) on her side, too much puppy-dog eagerness by the young man tilts the field too much to Mrs. Hoyt's side.
Ann Russell Whiteman, however, knows how to take command whenever the spotlight tilts in her direction. As Isabel Hastings Hoyt, Whiteman's eyes narrow in command, then glint whenever she feels the flirtatious mood descending upon her. As with Daisy Buchanan in the Fitzgerald novel that Ahrens' character salivates over, there needs to be money in Isabel's voice -- and Whiteman pays off. She's accustomed to being obeyed; she shifts into coquette mode automatically, even a half-century past her time; she knows how to tempt and seduce with an actress' touch. Why does a reclusive old woman suddenly start showing off for an uninvited guest? Because she once was on the stage herself.
Whiteman plays the self-conscious artifice of the moment to the hilt: "I was on the stage, yes," she murmurs to the young man who's agape in admiration, "I still am." Then she exults and raises her arms, well, theatrically.
There's a moment when the academic asks her why she doesn't consider the '20s a golden age, and when director Michael Weaver wisely lets Whiteman hold sway at downstage front. Mrs. Hoyt proceeds to deliver a hymn of praise to all the people who make any glorious era possible -- the workers and laborers in all those unglamorous jobs that make glamour possible. Whiteman projects the passion of a woman who's convinced that living, breathing people -- their emotions and worries and aspirations -- are of far more worth than any postcard Joseph Conrad may or may not have penned. People like her granddaughter, Virginia.
Tessa Gregory is helped in her characterization of Virginia by Lisa Caryl's costumes -- a baggy beige sweater for her dowdy first appearance, a little black something for when the ugly duckling goes out on a date. Gregory's deep voice serves her well in different ways -- awkward in the initial scenes, more self-assured once it's clear that Gram's plan is working. The ravages of alcohol and repeated failures in living and loving don't register fully enough in Gregory's portrayal, however, outside of Virginia's second-act confessional speech.
John Hofland's set, with its autumnal leaves and plain brownstone exterior, gives way to a living room in which everything (literally) is shrouded in mystery. With the furnishings covered up, the flamboyance of Isabel Hastings Hoyt is lost. An interesting comment to Saturday night's blog version of this review (at stagethrust.blogspot.com) notes a) that "there is nothing in the published script to suggest that the furniture and paintings must be covered by sheets," and b) that the gradual unveiling of the furnishings and eventual re-covering of them might have reinforced our sense that Mrs. Hoyt let down her guard for awhile, only to retreat ultimately into mystery.
Weaver keeps the blocking varied in this three-hander, though he hasn't done enough to tone down the melodrama of Act Two. But then late in the play, when Whiteman is swooning over a Verdi aria, her performance makes up for such deficiencies. Hinting at the wounded, commanding bravura that graced her portrayal of Maria Callas in Master Class at the Met some years ago, Whiteman is just as dominating and impressive in this show.