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A Writing Seminar Turns Into A Relationship Dissection And Social Tapestry

CHEEVERESQUE: Helen Hedman and Mitchell Hébert break through the upper crust.

By John Barry | Posted 9/5/2007

Mrs. Farnsworth

By A.R. Gurney

At Rep Stage through Sept. 23

If you're trying to check out A.R. Gurney's Mrs. Farnsworth at Howard Community College's Rep Stage in Columbia, you may think you've arrived at the wrong room. The play is staged in an actual lecture classroom, audience members are provided with blue books as program notes, and the scenery consists of a large blackboard.

The play is set in 2004, just before the election. The figures on the blackboard--presumably from a political-science course, earlier that day--state the facts baldly. John Kerry has 38 percent of the vote and George W. Bush has 44 percent, but the margin is narrowing. Mrs. Farnsworth takes place against this background of a divisive election that came close to dividing the country in half along its red/blue axis.

But the occasion is a late-night continuing education creative writing course in Manhattan. There are younger kids earnestly working on their first masterpieces, an older woman finally giving rein to her literary ambitions, and a lecturer/writer known as Gordon (Jason Schuchman) who is overbearing in style and thin on résumé. All of which--for anyone who's been to one of these classes--is right on target.

After a perfunctory opening, Gordon calls for the first reader. She's the eponymous Mrs. Farnsworth (Helen Hedman), who's traveled in from New Canaan, Conn., by train and has a new story to read. Actually, she only has a paragraph to read, a transparently autobiographical introduction to a young woman (herself) who's going on a ski trip with her Vassar friends.

Then the play starts to heat up. Gordon, in his typically hypermanipulative way, draws more out of her. She reveals some of the story line from memory, and it sounds a little like memories of a hard-drinking, privileged young wag from Yale who fathers an illegitimate child and then sends the mother to Guatemala for an abortion. As she reads it, Gordon realizes that she's talking about an old rendezvous with Bush and concludes that, if he can get this to the press, this story could shift the outcome of the election.

For Gordon, no friend of Bush, it's a dream come true. For Gurney, meanwhile, this play is ultimately less about Bush (or any scandal) and more of a character study of the class of blue bloods--Mrs. Farnsworth included--that nurtured the president throughout his misspent youth.

Mrs. Farnsworth, played to a tee by Hedman, is a tribute to the upper crust. Hedman injects a deferential charm into Mrs. Farnsworth, which is balanced by a hint, and sometimes more than that, of condescension. She is a Democrat, but there's something icy in her poise, or at least an awareness of social station. There's also an underlying manic insecurity that barely surfaces, but which we know she wouldn't let loose in public. As the play progresses, the sense of discretion becomes increasingly important: Even as her conversation becomes freer, something holds her back from a full-blown revelation.

One of the forces stopping her is her husband, Mr. Farnsworth, who arrives partway through the class, to retrieve his wife. Mitchell Hébert is physically perfect for the role: Smartly attired, imposing, but not swaggering, he radiates confidence in his own social station. That smugness is also at the root of his politely dismissive attitude toward Gordon. Meanwhile, Gordon grows increasingly frantic as he tries to persuade Mrs. Farnsworth that he can rescue her from her husband and coach her with this tell-all book.

You might think this is a play about the 2004 election, but it's not. Gurney's play is really about this New Canaan couple as they work out their marital and social difficulties in front of the class. They do it with perfect poise, since each one has a mental handbag full of expressions and endearments that have been handed down for decades in their pedigreed families. As Gordon (who is played as an annoyingly intrusive, somewhat neurotic young instructor) starts sticking his nose in, Mr. Farnsworth kindly but effectively shuts him off. Even so, Mr. F. never treads over those ever-present boundaries, thanks to Hébert's carefully controlled performance.

Mrs. Farnsworth, because of its unique setting, poses challenges that the Rep Stage company negotiates very successfully. Under the fluorescent classroom lights, the cast is under a good deal of pressure to avoid acting as though they are onstage, and director Steven Carpenter helps them rise to the occasion. It's a writing class that has a little more drama than the ones most of us have gone through, but it doesn't push the edge of realism. Set in a politically charged election season, Mrs. Farnsworth opens up broad questions about class, politics, and art. This refreshing, 90-minute production doesn't offer much closure, but in an amusing, lighthearted way, it makes us think about what we've become obsessed with in the last seven years.

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