Theater Review: “The Admirable Crichton” Entertains Via a Sprightly Stiff Upper Lip

The Admirable Crichton premiered in 1902, but the Peterborough Players bring this comedy about class division off admirably—as classy theater, not anthropology.

The Admirable Crichton by J. M. Barrie. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through August 12.

By Jim Kates

Karen Peakes (Mary) and Tom Frey (Crichton) in The Peterborough Players light-footed production of THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON. Photo: Deb Porter-Hayes

It’s been said that an American dearly loves a lord, and truly enough our fascination with class divisions is one of the cultural marks of a supposedly classless society. We watch the upstairs-downstairs dramas of the BBC the way earlier generations ogled photographs of tropical natives in National Geographic. J. M. Barrie’s Admirable Crichton, first produced in 1902, derives from a more established and domestic class system than we’re used to, one that was taken pretty much for granted until surprisingly recently, and the vestiges of which are still to be found in the United Kingdom. I’ll bet it plays differently there, a tad less exotically, from the way it does here.

Nevertheless, the Peterborough Players bring it off admirably themselves, as classy theater, not anthropology. The Admirable Crichton demands a light touch, and director Gus Kaikkonen keeps it so light that the clunkiest moments come only during a second-act scene change (courtesy of scenic designer Charles Morgan) when I found myself longing for the mercy of a curtain.

We open with Kraig Swartz in the role of the Wildean (wink, wink) Ernest Wooley, and Swartz with his by-now trademark comic timing has no trouble getting good comedy out of deliberately bad jokes—epigrams that fall flat. Wooley is a loose cannon of a cousin in the respectable household of Lord Henry Lasenby, the Earl of Loam, an experimenter with the social order, who brings the downstairs up for tea once a month. As Loam, Michael Page is impish rather than dominating and thereby negotiates his own comedownance under the reign of his butler Crichton (Tom Frey) and his subsequent recomeuppance quite naturally.

Frey falls victim to an American tendency to confuse stiffness with formality, and this slightly mars his performance. In the last scene, for instance, when he gives notice, the script calls for him to shrug his shoulders (“’God knows,’ it may mean” reads the stage direction) but, on the night I attended, he stood too impassively, looking mostly as if he was trying to remember what to say next. The moment turned out awkward and confusing in a way that neither he nor the director intended. Frey was at his best when he didn’t have to be the butler but reveled in being his own, and everyone else’s, boss.

How this comes about is that the aristocratic family—cousin Ernest, Loam and his three daughters, a family friend (Ian Peakes, steady in the part) Crichton, and a junior maid—are marooned for two years on a conveniently abundant desert island, a state of affairs that turns the “natural” hierarchy of the civilized class system topsy-turvy. But not in quite the way you might think. In fact, they all thrive under the benevolent despotism of Emperor Crichton. Karen Peakes makes a particularly convincing and bewitching transformation from Gibson Girl to Chingachgook in the role of the eldest Lasenby sister, Mary—and the audience feels the bittersweet ending of an idyll when the whole gang is inevitably and decisively rescued.

Cast of the Peterborough Players staging of THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON. Photo: Deb Porter-Hayes.

The two younger sisters, Agatha and Catherine, played by Laurel Schroeder and Hayley Palmaer respectively, are hardly distinguished in their characters, except by hair color. Emily Hooper makes a lovely turn of Eliza, the “tweeny” caught among her social betters, managing to convey that they’re no better than they should be, after all. For the last scene, the Duchess of Brockelhurst (Dale Hodges) sweeps in as if she were auditioning for Lady Bracknell, returning the play to its allusive beginnings.

In the end, it wasn’t the foundering of a globe-trotting yacht that tested the British hierarchy but a world war. The effect was very much the way it is in the play, with an attempt to return to the shaky status quo ante that held on until a couple of other curtains fell to change the scene. (The last lines are “CRICHTON: My Lady, not even from you can I listen to a word against England. LADY MARY: Tell me one thing; you have not lost your courage? CRICHTON: No, my lady”) From that perspective, The Admirable Crichton looks more prescient than precious. If this gives the play a darker tinge, a sharper edge, than was originally intended, it hardly matters. The Players’ production is sprightly enough that you’ll be otherwise engaged.

Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Muddy River (Carcanet), a translation of verse by Russian existentialist Sergey Stratanovsky. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) won the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.

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