Story: Three monologues by English playwright Alan Bennett depict the plights of a trio of middle-class, middle-aged Brits who share the common trait of loneliness. Nights in the Gardens of Spain concerns a homemaker, largely ignored by her husband, who becomes involved in an unlikely friendship when her neighbor is convicted of killing her own abusive spouse.
In A Chip in the Sugar, a man with a history of mental health issues who lives with his widowed mother becomes concerned when she is courted by a mysterious old flame. The vicar’s wife is the subject of A Bed Among the Lentils as she describes an affair with an Indian shopkeeper that occurs while her impervious and ambitious husband seeks to improve his position in the local religious hierarchy.
Highlights: Bennett wrote a total of 12 episodes, six each in 1988 and 1998, for BBC-TV, under the umbrella title Talking Heads. Each edition ran between 30 minutes and 40 minutes and focused on an individual whose initial humor about his or her condition gradually reveals a deeper and more disturbing sadness.
Director Lana Pepper has selected a trio of the dozen works for a St. Louis Actors’ Studio presentation that is long on acting ability that clearly demonstrates Bennett’s wonderful way with a phrase in these poignant, beautifully told tales.
Other Info: By the time that Glynnis Bell appears in the evening’s third work, A Bed Among the Lentils, one becomes overly familiar with the dramatic device established by Bennett and it starts to wear a little thin.
It’s apparent in the presentation to see how these individual pieces would work better delivered on a weekly basis, as there is sameness to the sadness, even when so eloquently communicated by skilled practitioners such as Elizabeth Townsend, Alan Knoll and Glynnis Bell. Additionally, the presentation style limits the dramatic tension possible with just one player in each tale.
Each vignette consists of several short scenes played out on Christie Johnston’s efficient set design, which incorporates Jonathan Zelezniak’s wistful lighting, some melancholy, atmospheric sound design contributed by Milton Zoth and Pepper’s own costume design that paints each character as ordinary and unpretentious, decent folks living their lives of quiet desperation.
Townsend embodies the quiet patience of a childless homemaker, a steadfast, amateur gardener who endures her husband’s self-absorbed fantasy of retiring to Marbella, Spain. It’s fascinating to watch her transform her expression when she learns some disturbing truths about her neighbor’s own spouse and some of the sinister types who joined him in his perversity or watching her describe the beautiful friendship that blooms between the two women.
Knoll quietly conveys the inherent sadness of Graham Whittaker, a role originally played by Bennett himself. He shows us an intelligent individual who cares for his aging mother, but also strains under the weight of an oppressive depression that keeps him living with her while repressing his own thoughts and desires. Knoll’s limp body conveys as much as his wan expression in shaping the part.
As the largely ignored wife of an ambitious cleric, Bell slowly and deliberately reveals how her character finds solace not only in the bottles of alcohol she’s stashed throughout her house but in the arms of a genial merchant who introduces her to unabashed sexual pleasure with no strings attached. Even in the absence of love, the lonely woman is elevated and stimulated by this stranger who treats her with more kindness than her own indifferent spouse.
With Talking Heads, character development is the be-all and end-all. Pepper shrewdly takes advantage of the considerable skills of her trio of players to provide a sobering and satisfying evening in the company of three signature characters shaped by Bennett’s clear understanding of the human spirit’s longing for companionship.
The static nature of his story construction provides its own artistic limitations in a full-fledged production, but the opportunity to see back-to-back-to-back stellar performances makes Talking Heads a mostly rewarding evening nonetheless.
Play: Talking Heads
Group: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: May 23, 24, 25, 26
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb