Until A Noise Within’s delightful revival of J.M. Barrie’s little-known 1917 play, Dear Brutus (now playing through mid-December), I hadn’t seen a portable forest moving across the theatrical countryside since Birnam Wood crept toward Macbeth’s final battle — and that was actually soldiers in camouflage playing mind games on an already deluded king. And though Shakespeare invested heavily in stage magic — from Puck’s spells in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Prospero’s conjuring in The Tempest — his enchanted forests and islands tended to stay put. Trees and isles don’t suddenly pop up. Barrie’s Dear Brutus — largely influenced by Shakespeare — takes things to that level: A magical forest simply arrives outside the estate of an old eccentric named Lob (Steve Weingartner), who’s like Puck’s granddad. Another character explains the spontaneous manifestation of bark and foliage: “It has been seen on different parts of the Downs and on More Common . . . and another time about a mile from the sea. Oh, a sporting wood!”
To understand Barrie’s intent, which lies partly in the wind-chime tones of his repartee, one need look no further than the stage directions with which he opens the play: “The scene is a darkened room, which the curtain reveals so stealthily that if there was a mouse on the stage it is there still. Our object is to catch our two chief characters unawares; they are Darkness and Light.” The Darkness lies in the room. The Light comes from the garden, and the forest beyond it.
Barrie is the same Scotsman who wrote Peter Pan. He was one of 10 siblings, and suffered through the childhood death of one brother — and his mother’s immovable grief from that loss. In his memoirs, Barrie wrote about remembering his mother calling his late brother’s name when he entered the room, and of himself as a child feeling compelled to apologize for being himself. The boy who never grew up is, of course, the sentimental centerpiece of Peter Pan. In Dear Brutus, there are many children who can’t grow up — even with the accouterments of adulthood: jobs, facial hair, bonnets and handbags. Their stations in life may change in this play, but they’re stuck forever inside who they are.
In other recent revivals, Dear Brutus has been blasted by critics for its stasis and schematics. Neither of these are issues under Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s direction. She stages a carefully wrought period piece that’s acted with a beguiling blend of authority and whimsy. She can thank set designer Michael C. Smith and lighting designer Ken Booth for the ethereal levity emanating from those suspended paper lampshades that bridge Barrie’s opposing worlds. And Soojin Lee’s costumes are just ravishing.
The plot starts like something from a play by Agatha Christie — five matrons and three of their spouses arrive at Lob’s manse. They don’t know exactly why they’ve been invited, and they try to squeeze an answer out of the enigmatic butler, Matey, played by the Dracularian William Dennis Hunt with a dour decorum and the deep timbre of a loyal servant who knows his place. In actuality, he’s not particularly loyal and he doesn’t know his place. The women blackmail him for intel after pegging him for filching their jewelry — three rings that he returns to the owners with stoic propriety, as though he were serving them tea.
He drops tortured hints about the nature of their host, Lob, an avid horticulturist who coos poems of adoration to his hyacinths. Lob appears to have been alive since Elizabethan times. His razors reveal all, Matey explains to Lady Caroline (Erin Bennett).
“If you saw his razors . . . from patents of the present day back to implements so horrible, you can picture him with them in his hand scraping his way through the ages.”
After more hints, Matey proffers a stern warning that they stay out of the wood — the wood that’s just shown up beyond the garden. People who go into that wood often don’t come out. Near the end of Act 1, Matey finally reveals the common thread that binds the guests — they’ve each taken wrong turns in their lives — and that the wood is a land of second chances, of opportunities to recover what might have been.
The wrong turns of the assembled guests have emerged through the act. Former model Mrs. Dearth (Deborah Strang) finds herself trapped in a barren marriage with a middle-aged alcoholic painter (Geoff Elliott) who’s lost his muse. The Coades (Sally Smythe and Mitchell Edmonds) have gone awry for their own reasons. Meanwhile, another guest, a philanderer named Mr. Purdie (Bruce Turk), woos his mistress, Joanna (Abby Craden), whom Lob also invited for his own impish reasons.
Purdie blathers romantically about his loneliness in life. “You break my heart,” Joanna replies with gusto, which only prods Purdie further: “It is the thought of you that sustains me, elevates me. You shine high above me like a star,” he proclaims rapturously, before floating in a cloud of moral purity. His feelings for his mistress, he claims, have made him kinder to his wife, Mabel. Purdie may or may not believe his drivel, but therein lies a marvelously faux elevation of infidelity, rendered by the actors with irresistible charm — the philanderer’s guilt being fobbed off as high-toned generosity.
Barrie’s brand of whimsy is more brittle than Shakespeare’s, infused with the sarcastic undertow of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, but somehow done less ostentatiously than either of them. It takes the lovers a while to realize that Mrs. Mabel Purdie (Jill Hill) has been watching them through a French window.
MABEL (apologetically): I am so sorry to interrupt you, Jack, but please wait a moment before you kiss her again. Excuse me, Joanna.
[She quietly draws the curtains, thus shutting out the garden and any possible onlooker.] I did not want the others to see you; they might not understand how noble you are, Jack. You can go on now.
A collective amnesia descends upon them in the wood — Barrie’s nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Old gent Goade, one of the decorous guests, turns into Pan, rollicking with a crown of vine leaves, playing a flute; philanderer Purdie woos Mabel, who’s now his mistress, while former mistress Joanna, now his wife, watches in agony. All they’ve done is switch places — much like Matey, who, given a second chance, took a clerkship that he refused the first time around, and is now a wealthy financier with a sadistic streak — and still a thief, of course.
In this play’s one scene of uncharacteristic sentimentality, the passionless painter is now a happy artist at his easel, with a child at last — a teenage daughter (Jessica Berman), on the brink of slipping away into adulthood. “Fame is rot,” he declares. “Daughters are everything.” Meanwhile, his wife from the Dark is now impoverished, begging for crumbs, unrecognized and unrecognizing.
Near play’s end, one by one, the guests return to the Dark room — their liberated spirits don’t even recognize the place at first, until familiar furniture and other associations of their “real” lives sink in. There’s a rare and beautiful horror that Hunt captures so subtly in his face, as Matey re-enters the room from the woods, as Barrie’s anesthesia wears off, as financier returns to butler, as his sadism yields back to servitude. Meanwhile, Strang’s forlorn Mrs. Dearth — still begging for food when she first re-enters the room — slowly recognizes the former measure of her wealth, and Barrie’s magic act unveils the brutal capriciousness of life’s turns. Yet all of the character’s essences have remained intact, belligerently so, in poverty and in wealth.
The play’s title is taken from Cassius’ line in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” Or, to paraphrase Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians: “We are what we are, if you know what I mean.”
DEAR BRUTUS | By J.M. BARRIE | Presented by A NOISE WITHIN, 134 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale | In repertory through December 18 | (818) 240-0901, Ext. 1, or www.anoisewithin.org