Play: “The Cassilis Engagement”
Group: Act Inc.
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Wydown at Big Bend
Dates: June 25, 26, 27
Tickets: $18; contact 314-725-9108 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Story: Wealthy Mrs. Cassilis lives a stately, elegant life in the English countryside, regularly entertaining the likes of the snobbish Countess of Remenham and the stuffy Lady Marchmont. It has generally been assumed that Mrs. Cassilis’ son Geoffrey would eventually marry the Countess’ daughter, Lady Mabel Venning. All those thoughts are cast to the winds, however, when Geoffrey announces his engagement to Ethel Borridge, a crass and crude Cockney lass from London.
Although stunned, Lady Cassilis nevertheless invites Ethel and her big-hearted mother, Mrs. Borridge, to her country estate to meet them. The Countess is aghast at the very thought, while Lady Marchmont is apoplectic at the sight and sound of the earthy, uneducated Mrs. Borridge and her vulgar ways. What Mrs. Cassilis anticipates, though, is that once Geoffrey sees Ethel for the low-class, opportunistic money-grabber she believes her to be, he’ll come to his senses and propose to the beautiful and loyal Lady Mabel. Or will he?
Highlights: Act Inc. specializes in unearthing rarely performed gems as well as restaging reliable old chestnuts. The former is apparent in the case of this forgotten nugget by Victorian playwright and journalist St. John Hankin, whose witty works often led to unhappy endings, in defiance of the preference of the masses of his day.
In the case of the first Sunday performance of Act Inc.’s production, just ending the play was an accomplishment. In testament to the considerable performance skills of the cast, they endured a litany of unexpected interruptions that may have thrown off their timing but only underscored their resilience and pluck.
From a scary fainting spell by an elderly gentleman to the brash ringing of a loud cell phone and subsequent conversation by the thick-headed recipient to the loud conversations of front-row audience members, the stalwart cast proved its mettle in unexpected ways. The show, indeed, did go on.
Other Info: Director Rob Grumich obviously is a fan of this sophisticated, drawing-room comedy, although the tortuous pace of the third act (which was devoid of any apparent outside influences) seemed as much a problem with the script as with the production. Still, it’s a treat to see the likes of Liz Hopefl, Eleanor Mullin and Donna Weinsting doing their best stiff upper-lip impersonations to delight an audience, as the scheming Mrs. Cassilis, pompous Lady Marchmont and imperious Countess, respectively.
The real scene-stealer, though, is Teresa Doggett. As the out-of-her-element Mrs. Borridge, Doggett mines the juicy role for comic material both in her labored Cockney accent attempting to speak with ‘class’ and also with her hilarious physical humor, highlighted by a scene where she determinedly gobbles up chocolates.
Emily Baker is delightful as the conniving Ethel. Her simmering fuse over the aristocrats’ shoddy treatment of her mum and herself leads to a bawdy barroom-style song that appalls the overly sensitive types but amuses Mrs. Cassilis’ wastrel brother, Major Warrington. Tim Grumich brings an easygoing, impish quality to the roguish Warrington.
Wes Cannon and Sabra Sellers are both likable as the earnest if somewhat dim Geoffrey and his quietly admiring childhood friend Lady Mabel. Colin Nichols and Marilyn Bass-Hayes provide additional comic relief as the light-headed Rev. Herries and his ditzy wife, while Dan Grumich and Zoe Sullivan are the efficient and enterprising servants.
Tim Poertner’s set design conveys the status of Mrs. Cassilis’ social class as well as the late Victorian era, as do the elegant costumes provided by Ann Stirnemann, although her real stand-out contribution is the peacock wardrobe of the wide-eyed Mrs. Borridge. Props by Emily Robinson, sound design by Kareem Deanes and lighting by Michael Sullivan all enhance the presentation.
“The Cassilis Engagement” is vintage stuff for Act Inc. and faithful fans should enjoy the production, despite the predictability of the plot and the sluggish tempo.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.