Natural Affection, by William Inge, opened on Broadway in 1963, during a newspaper strike. William Inge at that time was, along with Tennessee Williams, America’s leading playwright. Natural Affection was directed by Tony Richardson (‘Tom Jones’) and starred Kim Stanley, arguably one of the greatest actresses of 20th Century America. Nevertheless, It closed after 36 performances. How terrible, people said, how tragic, that this cultural event should be denied to the general public, by a bunch of newspaper men wanting higher pay. But even as they howled their protests, the play vanished.
Now it has reappeared. Watching it brought up memories of an era in American life and theatre, that has also vanished into the hinterland that inspired it. I am not surprised. This play was just not good enough to survive the rapacity of Broadway audiences, even with the extraordinary performance of Kim Stanley.
The play, to tell the the truth, cannot be compared to the outstanding plays of the same period, such as ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ ‘ Death of a Salesman‘ or indeed, Inge’s own major work, such as ‘Picnic’ or ‘ Bus Stop.’ Still, it is always interesting to see a work by a great playwright which doesn’t quite work. It seems to throw his personal themes into a higher relief . Inge was almost a great playwright, perhaps not in the manner of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, but a kind of theatrical echo of Edward Hopper, or Edwin Arlington Robinson, where the apparently obvious , flat language conceals a profound and delicately complex suggestion of spiritual anguish: frustration and sexual conflict, hurt masculinity, frustrated longing, concealed or smothered homosexuality, limited but soul destroying aspirations, all the spiritual deprivations of small town life- these are the ongoing stories of the characters in Picnic, Dark at The Top of The Stairs, Bus Stop.
All these small town, outwardly conventional people are touching by the very reason of their limitations. This play is particularly dated, being a mixture of Oedipus and Freud, with not enough holds barred. Inge was more than most, a writer of his time and place, and inevitably he dated in his own lifetime. Many of his qualities, however, remain to be savoured: his eye for detail, his sympathy for youthful suffering, his sensitivity for the ways conventional people cope, with loss and love. His feeling for the accuracy of sexual confusion (of both sexes) both dates the play and gives it a special tenderness. The violence that ends this play clashes with Inge’s style, and seems liked an unfortunate attempt to update himself (the play was based on a contemporary case of a young man who murdered a woman for no apparent reason).
Natural Affection is a very difficult play to produce and perform – unlike Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, Inge give nothing away for free – actors and audience have to dig for the vulnerabilities beneath the flat language.
It is interesting see this revival at the Jermyn Street theatre – the central character, torn between the demands of her less financially successful boyfriend and the conflicting (close to incestuous) needs of her son, just home from reform school – it has several of the typical Inge characters: frustrated, sexually confused people trapped in small town conventions. Like his other plays, it is written in a style that seems almost over-prosed, but which needs highly sensitive acting to bring out the sadness that runs through the forced jollity and violence like a tear.
To make this play work it has to be re-thought, and it is here that the director, Grace Wessels, has triumphed. She has turned the original star vehicle into an ensemble piece, where the despair and failure of each character is a part of the total picture of lower middle class life in the early sixties, just before everyone discovered that sex was OK, gay or straight. In this play The Twist is a big emotional breakthru and the reactions of the people watching this small act of rebellion are interesting and indeed part of the rebellion itself.
This has become a play about a group of people whose aspirations are doomed by their personal limitations and their social position and and the play, although still flawed, (structurally, it shreds apart about two thirds of the way through), is the better for it – as a story of a group of people caught in dead end lives, it makes a bolder statement and even if is it is not actually a better play, it is a more interesting one.
The set is an excellent image of provincial lower middle class aspiration and most of the acting is spot on. I particularly admired Timothy Knightley as the failed salesman – his anguished need to hang on to his masculine image, his inarticulate resentment of his lover’s son, his insecurity, tensely and inadequately covered by salesman’s slick performance of social ease, the way he identified money with masculinity, kept the audience watching to see what he would do next. The performance was also enhanced by Mr Knightley’s personal charm, that made the character, even at his worst moments, sympathetic. Louis Cardona as the son, although obviously inexperienced, is also obviously talented, and needs only a bit more technical skill to be a very interesting actor indeed. His somewhat unnerving resemblance to James Dean is a helpful reminder of the period. I happened to see the original performance of this play and Mr Cardona,despite his lack of skill, is sympathetic in a way which was lacking the first time around.
It is not a shame (as people like to say) that this piece is seldom revived, but it is good to see it and to be made aware again how touching and humane Inge’s work was even at less than his best.
Although it’s not a great play, Inge was an important playwright in his day; Ms Wessels has asked herself the hard question: what is this play really about? and has come up with the right answer.When I had seen it, I understood why it is useful to see even his later and admittedly minor work. The company have given it a well produced, beautifully acted performance; even at less than his best, Inge had something honest and touching to say about how we lived then and it is well worth seeing now.
Review by Kate Beswick
House on the Hill Productions in association with Jermyn Street Theatre present the UK premiere of Natural Affection, by William Inge
Creative: Directed by Grace Wessels, Set Design by Victoria Johnstone, Costume Design by Emily Stuart, Lighting by Steve Lowe.
Cast: Lysette Anthony, Louis Cardona, Timothy Knightley, Adriana Maestranzi, Jessica Preddy, Jeremy Smith, Jonathan Wadey
Jermyn Street Theatre until 9th August 2014
Monday to Saturday 7.30pm, Saturday matinees 3.30pm
Running time 120 minutes (including interval)
Sunday 20th July 2014