Story: Ronnie Winslow, a 13-year-old cadet at England’s Osborn Naval Academy, is expelled in 1912 when he is accused and assumed guilty of stealing a small amount of money in the form of a postal order from another cadet. Ronnie strenuously denies the accusation, compelling his father, Arthur Winslow, to defend his son and the family’s honor.
The elder Winslow contacts the nation’s pre-eminent barrister, Sir Robert Morton, who agrees to represent the lad after grilling him mercilessly in the Winslow’s stately upper-middle-class home. Over the course of the next two years, Arthur sacrifices much of his family’s estate as well as his own declining health to restore the luster to the good Winslow name.
To do so, Sir Robert must utilize an ancient and rarely tapped legal device called a “petition of right,” by which a person could redress grievances against the military in an open court. But will he succeed in a trial that has become a national cause célèbre?
Highlights: Where to begin to describe the delicate beauty of this production? The stars have aligned in breathtaking symmetry at The Rep, where artistic director Steven Woolf meticulously coaxes a bevy of magnificent performances from a cast well attuned to the nuances of Sir Terence Rattigan’s compelling script.
Written in 1946 and based on a real incident that occurred in Edwardian England in the years immediately before World War I, The Winslow Boy is a sumptuous feast for Anglophiles, Masterpiece Theatre on stage. From the set to the costumes to the lighting and the characters brought to impeccable life by the cast, The Winslow Boy is a treat for the senses as well as the heart and mind.
Other Info: So often a play written 75 or 50 or even 25 years ago can seem dated and archaic. In the case of The Winslow Boy, Rattigan’s script is so tightly crafted and wonderfully written that it both encapsulates and transcends its era. As Woolf points out in his letter to subscribers, the drama faithfully represents two eras, the one in which it is set and the one in which it was written.
As further testament to Woolf’s meticulous guidance, the play’s nearly three hours never wane as Rattigan moves his characters and story to a resounding climax. Its four scenes are equally divided between two acts, with intervals of several months and nearly two years between the first scene and the finale.
John Ezell’s tasteful scenic design underscores the elegance of the Winslow home, which is refined but not ostentatious, a place where a journalist in the rising tabloid ranks can boldly inquire about the drapes while cavalierly referencing the young man on trial. It’s particularly striking in Act II, when one notices the absence of the family’s artwork, which has been sold to pay for Sir Robert’s considerable but also expensive counsel.
The Edwardian era is given full representation in the lavish costumes designed by Dorothy Marshall Englis, from the handsome dresses adorning suffragette daughter Catherine Winslow to Sir Robert’s finest puffery to the modest, working attire of the parlor maid Violet.
Rob Denton’s intricate lighting paints a fascinating early-morning scene, while Rusty Wandall’s pastoral sound design suits the estate as well as the genteel personality of the Winslow patriarch and his devoted wife, Grace.
There are many richly layered performances that further elevate The Rep’s luminous production. Kathleen Wise as Catherine, in many ways, is the real focus of the story, a ‘modern’ young woman in 1912 England who chooses to marry a man she loves and also believes fervently in devoting her time to a cause she finds significant. Wise’s portrayal, richly satisfying and convincing, brings Emma Thompson to mind in her precise presentation.
After a halting start on opening night, Jeff Hayenga brought considerable dignity and gravitas to the role of Arthur. His second-act portrayal starkly demonstrates the elder Winslow’s declining health as the grueling, emotional grind of the trial takes its steady toll.
Jay Stratton is terrific as the pompous, bombastic and extremely confident Sir Robert, a man who demands to be served and knows exactly how excellent he is at his craft. Stratton makes a remarkably subtle transformation from arrogant outsider in the first act to one willing to show a bit of his own humanity to the Winslow family, particularly the attractive Catherine, in the second.
Carol Schulz is delightful as loving matriarch Grace, concerned for all of her children’s happiness as well as that of her husband and maid. Jay Stalder does well as young Ronnie, and Hunter Canning nicely etches the role of older son Dickie, a playboy who doesn’t take well to the declining family fortune and the eventual need for him to work for a living.
As Catherine’s fiancé John Watherstone, William Connell carefully crafts a character who isn’t really a bad chap, but not an especially noble one, either, especially when his comfort zone is challenged.
Local performers Michael James Reed, Peggy Billo and Amy Loui delight in their roles. Reed is a chameleon who can seemingly handle any part with a deft touch, as he does here as the awkward family attorney Desmond Curry, a likable fellow who understands that his days as a cricket champion were the highlight of his life and one who knows that his love for Catherine likely will remain unrequited.
Billo brings vivacity and charm to the role of the loyal family servant Violet, while Loui shines in the role of a vapid reporter, assisted by her own paparazzi pal played by Kai Klose.
The verdict is clear: There’s much to savor and appreciate in The Rep’s winning presentation of The Winslow Boy.
Play: The Winslow Boy
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through March 8
Tickets: $21-$76; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.