Theater Review: Travels with My Aunt at Writers’ Theatre
By Bill Beard
When Graham Green’s novel Travels with My Aunt came out in 1969, it was greeted with some joy and enthusiasm from humor and mild adventure readers. But it wasn’t until the movie version was released in 1972, featuring the magnificent Maggie Smith in the title role, that it became known beyond the British literary world.
The stage version currently displayed so brilliantly at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, Ill., was adapted and first produced in 1989 by Giles Havergal at the famous Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow. Unfortunately, it is not often produced here in the States.
This is the unlikely tale of Henry Pulling, a mild-mannered bank retiree whose life is rather “taken over” by an elderly aunt, who appears at his mother’s funeral after an absence of 50 years. Aunt Augusta (read that as a vestige of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell) takes charge of Henry’s world and proceeds to lead him into and through a complete transformation of his humdrum life, from mild to wild, by treating him first to a luxury trip on the Orient Express from London to Istanbul, but which serves only as the beginning of his international exposure to her fantastic adventures, current, future (and through stories of her former loves and lovers), even the past.
The some 25-plus characters are here sublimely portrayed by a cast of four superbly talented Chicago actors: LaShawn Banks, Sean Fortunato, John Hoogenakker and Jeremy Sher; all without benefit of any costume or makeup change, but accomplished through the sheer genius of talent on the part of these four fine actors, and of course, guided by the cunningly skillful hand of Writers’ Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director Stuart Carden.
To complete the minimalist concept, the tiny acting space, designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge in the rear room of a charming little bookshop on the main street of Glencoe, is adorned only by bookshelves at each end of the long, narrow room, on which are groupings of suitcases, travel memorabilia and the various props needed throughout the action. The audience is guided through the evening’s delights by the story as told through Aunt Augusta’s adventures, with sound and other effects supplied by one of the four actors, Jeremy Sher, with inspired creativity, absolutely ingenious.
But the success here is primarily that of the acting. Each of the four actors plays a variety of characters; but all four divide and share the lines of our hero, Henry Pulling, which might have proven terribly confusing, but did not, even for an instant. Mr. Banks carries the role of Aunt Augusta’s lifelong friend Wordsworth, as well as several foreign accented roles; and Mr. Sher leaves his “effects table” in the corner to play the spirited Girl in Jodhpurs.
But Hoogenakker and Fortunato (sounds a bit like an up-market London haberdashery, doesn’t it?) are the ones whose precision, subtlety and agility of voice and movement produce a sort of profoundly skillful, “joint tour de force.”
Mr. Hoogenakker, as the lovely young Tooley (among other innocent young things), was indeed so sweet and charming that I nearly fell in love. How could a grown man, in striped pants and cutaway, create such an endearing ingenue?
Mr. Fortunato had the honor of handling the role of Aunt Augusta throughout the whole evening; and it was indeed a privilege and a joy to watch. All he needed do was to remove the bowler hat, put his gracefully curved hand beside his chin, purse the lips just so, and then turn those piercing, yet gentle, eyes in your direction, and in no way could anyone resist “traveling anywhere with this wonderful creature”!
I had only seen him once before, as the Detective in Drury Lane Oak Brook’s hit production of Curtains. Forgive me for lifting a quote from my own review of that production: “Providing the foundation and setting the standard for the whole performance is the gifted Sean Fortunato, with a perfectly-balanced, seemingly effortless performance…”!
So it is again, in this not-to-be-missed production of Travels with My Aunt.
The run has now been extended twice and will play through April 10. For information and reservations, call now: 847-242-6000.
From the March 9-15, 2011, issue
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