Diana of Dobson's

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater
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Britain’s Edwardian Theatre was more than Gilbert & Sullivan revivals, music hall comics, and drawing room comedies. A group of socially conscious playwrights like George Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville-Barker, and John Galsworthy wrote probing plays which examined still resonant issues like the class divide, societal hypocrisy, and disreputable financiers. The Antaeus Theatre Company’s revival of Diana of Dobson’s proves that Cicely Hamilton has every right to stand proudly beside her fellow playwrights.

Hamilton had been a touring actress in the Victorian Era, but she returned to London and got involved with the growing Suffragette movement as a writer. Her background and her interest in women’s rights made her switch to playwright a natural progression. Diana of Dobson’s was her most successful play, but, like the rest of her work, it is unjustly forgotten.

Hamilton’s titular Diana is Diana Massingbird (Abigail Marks). As the daughter of a country doctor who left nothing when he died, Diana was forced to find work. Following a disappointing series of positions, Diana has landed at Dobson’s Drapery Emporium. Unlike the other women she works with, Diana is outspoken about the low pay, exhausting work hours, and barely livable conditions in which the women live.

An extraordinary ray of hope appears in the guise of a letter which explains that Diana has inherited 300 pounds. It's a  small fortune to a working girl, though not enough to set her up for life. It does mean that Diana can leave the drudgery of Dobson’s. But she decides, rather than sitting on her windfall and eking out a parsimonious existence, she will throw caution to the wind and spend that money on a brief, luxurious holiday. She buys an expensive wardrobe and takes rooms at an exclusive Swiss mountain chalet where she is surrounded by the cream of society--a Cinderella controlled by a pocketbook rather than a clock.

She attracts a good deal of attention as the unknown “widow” of Josiah Massingbird. She even receives two marriage proposals. The first is from the recently knighted Sir Jabez Grinley (John Apicella). He's a self-made man who runs a number of businesses, though he doesn’t recognize Diana as a former employee. The other guests loathe Grinely as a tradesman and social climber who, despite his money, will never be one of them. The second is Victor Bretherton (John Bobek), a true member of the aristocracy, but a man seemingly as dull and indolent as Grinely is shrewd and industrious. Both men are amazed that Diana turns them down.

Director Casey Stangl brought the play to the company and has done a superb job of guiding her talented cast. If the script had any cobwebs, Stangl’s pitch-perfect pacing or, perhaps, some judicious pruning blew them away. The direction also finds an easy balance between the gritty realism of the bookending London acts and the more comic and satiric elements of the Swiss adventure. Under Stangl’s sure hand the play pulsates with life and speaks with a striking directness to current societal issues.

Marks’ Diana is a richly drawn theatrical character. Confident, intelligent, unafraid and always ready to say what’s on her mind, the woman is awe-inspiring.  One has to wonder, though, what contemporary audiences made of her in 1908. Equally startling for that audience must have been the characterization of Bretherton. He's not so much the feckless twit, which Bobek nails, but the caring man who listens when Diana points out his faults and tries to address them. Bobek is completely winning as this man in transition. In a switch from the Antaeus double-casting tradition, Marks plays Diana throughout the run.

The rest of the cast is similarly strong, and many play more than one role. Several turns stand out, like Kristen Ariza’s knowing Miss Smithers, Rhonda Aldrich’s dour Miss Pringle and her breathless Mrs. Cantelupe, as well Lynn Milgrim’s not-so-dotty Mrs. Whyte-Fraser and her sympathetic Old Woman in the final act. Grinely presents Diana with a worthy opponent and, under different circumstances, a possibly worthy partner. Apicella’s detailed performance doesn’t quite make us sympathize with him, but we certainly understand him.

Nina Caussa’s efficient set design offers what we need to conjure all three locations, wisely leaving the work of the layers and details to A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s intricate and appropriately weighty costumes. Accent Coach Nike Doukas has done a particularly fine job which goes a long way in coloring the dialogue as well as separating the classes.

Hamiton’s work in Diana of Dobsons’ feels extremely contemporary. She makes her points without feeling the need to rant or sermonize in the way many of her contemporaries do. This revival is a rare opportunity to enjoy a well-crafted period play written from a woman’s viewpoint.

Kiki and David Gindler Performing Arts Center    April 18 – June 3, 2019    www.Antaeus.org