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Review From The House: The Constant Wife

Nicole Underhay in the Constant Wife. Photo by David CooperNicole Underhay in The Constant Wife. Photo by David Cooper
The Constant Wife by Somerset Maugham
Directed by Morris Panych
Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage
Arts Club Theatre Company
Jan 22nd to Feb 22nd, 2009

Vancouver, BC:  What a treat to see a play that is bitingly clever, features strong, clearly drawn female characters, is consistent in its visual appeal and provides really great entertainment. Until now my exposure to the work of Maugham was decades ago and limited to his novels. I read Of Human Bondage, his major semi- autobiographical novel and a heavy  read, in my medical student days and The Moon and Sixpence shortly after that. So the humour and witty dialogue in this play came as a delightful surprise. 

For me the mood was set (no pun intended) from the minute I  entered the balcony at the Stanley theatreand looked down at the stage.  Under Alan Brodie's lighting, Ken MacDonald's set, an exquisite all-white drawing room -  a gesture to Maugham's  interior designer  wife, Syrie,  credited as the originator of  an all-white interior concept - conveys  elegance, wealth and sophistication, the perfect environment for the elegant and sophisticated Constance Middleton (Nicole Underhay). Nancy Bryant's handsome costume designs were visual metaphors for the characters; the singleminded, somewhat humourless, conservatively dressed  Barbara (Katie Wright), the forceful Martha (Moya O'Connell) stylish and a touch flamboyant, the ditsy fluttery Mary-Louise (Celine Stubel) and Mrs. Culver (Bridget O'Sullivan),  Constance's mother, who seemed to alternate between common sense and fussiness.

Celine Stubel and Nicole Underhay in The Constant Wife.  Photo David CooperCeline Stubel and Nicole Underhay in The Constant Wife. Photo David CooperThe play  is an interesting take on marriage and extra-marital relationships  from the pen of a man whose own marriage was short lived.  Dr. John Middleton (Ted Cole)  is having an affair with Mary-Louise, the "very good"  friend of his wife Constance. Everyone  knows this is going on but they think Constance does not know.  Matters come to a head when Mortimer (Mark Burgess), Mary-Louise's husband arrives to accuse John of having an affair with his wife. The others all learn that Constance has known all along and doesn't see any reason to get mad with either John or Mary-Louise. She figures that after five years as husband and wife she and John were no longer "in love" but just good friends. When an old admirer Bernard (Mike Wasko) enters the picture, Constance turns the tables on John. As an unashamed romantic, I confess I could not really understand Constance's equanmity in the face of her hubby's betrayal.  And as for John preferring flighty, sneaky Mary-Louise to his own gorgeous wife?  Well I could only agree with Puck - "what fools these mortals be."  But it makes a good story, with lots of opportunities for barbed digs at both sexes.

Director Panych draws an absolutely pitch perfect performance from Underhay. Her Constance manipulates her family, friends, would- be-lover and straying husband with an outward delicacy and feminine charm that only  hints at the underlying control with which she steers them all in the direction she wants. She is quite lovely and it's quite understandable that her husband will forgive her anything in the end. Hers is my favorite performance so far of the season, and I have seen a lot of really good theatre this season.  Underhay is well supported by excellent performances from the entire cast and Panych keeps the action moving at a cracking pace.

My friend and I left the theatre laughing and upbeat, ready for a glass of wine and an interesting discussion on friendship, marriage and the single life. So a good comedy can generate deep discussions too.  Hmmm... Anyway I enjoyed this production a lot and highly recommend it. And maybe I will read more Maugham. Hopefully his wit extends beyond the subject of marriage.