September 26, 1999
After giving Harley Granville-Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance a triumphant and long-overdue New York premiere last summer, the Mint Theater Company opens its new season by rediscovering another neglected gem. Alison’s House, written by the pioneering American dramatist Susan Glaspell, premiered on Broadway in 1931, won the Pulitzer Prize (to a loud and vociferous chorus of disapproval), and then more or less disappeared. Now, in a vivid and thoughtful production staged by Linda Ames Key, Alison’s House at last gets a second viewing. It turns out to be an absorbing and literate family drama—one that speaks resonantly to us today as we approach the dawning of a new millennium.
Alison’s House is the Stanhope homestead, the New England house where John, Agatha, and Alison Stanhope were born and grew up. Alison and Agatha, both unmarried, remained and Alison died here seventeen years ago; as the play begins, the ailing Miss Agatha is about to move in with John, and the family is closing up the house, which is to be sold and demolished.
So why is it Alison’s House? Because after Alison died, the family discovered the many poems that she had left behind, poems that when published made Alison Stanhope world-famous. The place where she created this extraordinary body of work has become part of her mythology; Alison’s family and her fans are eager to preserve the legacy that is represented and embodied by Alison’s House.
Any resemblance to some of the facts surrounding the death and discovery of Emily Dickinson is entirely intentional: Ms. Glaspell is exploring here the nature of celebrity and the price of fame. When does a private life become public property? When Alison’s niece Elsa discovers—as we know she will—a packet filled with hitherto unknown and unpublished poems, the ones that spell out the details of Alison’s unhappy and unrequited romance with a married man, the family must decide whether the poems belong to the memory of their beloved relative, or to the ages.
Ms. Glaspell gives their dilemma particular resonance by setting her play on December 31, 1899. Standing on the brink of a new century, the Stanhopes’ choice to destroy or preserve Alison’s lost poems becomes emblematic of the larger decision of whether to hold onto the safe but rapidly obsolescing values of the 19th century, or to embrace the intimidating inevitability of the 20th. Living astride two centuries ourselves, we are in a unique position to understand what the Stanhopes are going through.
Yet despite the timely and thoughtful problem at its center, what I find most compelling about Alison’s House is its intimacy: this play is at its best in its portrayal of a believable, quirky, loving family. The Stanhope clan are instantly interesting and tantalizingly complex: father John endured a loveless marriage while cherishing a young woman with whom he may or may not have had a daughter; elder brother Eben has dutifully entered the family business but clearly craves something more exciting; and younger brother Ted, though a playful and careless university student, seems nevertheless headed for a similar fate. Their sister Elsa, meanwhile, has defied the family by running off with a married man, replaying Alison’s story with a different ending. All four share a strong and unbreakable bond with Alison—and with each other—that finally defines them.
The relationships among the family members are vividly realized in this production, particularly among the three male Stanhopes. As portrayed by Lee Moore (John), Gerard O’Brien (Eben), and Matt Oparny (Ted), they feel uncannily like a father and his two sons, joshing around with one another with a casual affection that is palpable. Their interplay is the best thing about Alison’s House; its naturalness raises the stakes as generations clash over their duty to Alison and to the world.
Alison’s House is not a well-made play, and it is resolutely old-fashioned in its sensibility and its construction. (It’s the kind of play that seems to have built-in pauses for applause when the characters enter a scene; where women in period costumes melodramatically fall to their knees with alarming regularity.) Director Linda Ames Key has perhaps too contemporary a touch to quite do it justice, and not all of the actors are exactly right (Ann Hillary looks much too youthful and vigorous to be convincing as Aunt Agatha, for example, and Karla Mason’s Elsa lacks the fortitude and nobility that she ought to have). These small problems notwithstanding, this is an excellent rendition of a play that has undeservedly been cast aside; Alison’s House is a splendid work of theatre, one that will tantalize you with its unsolvable questions about a poet, a family, and a house caught between the past and the future.