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“You don’t need to know anything to get married” is a theme of The Vinegar Tree, the vintage 1930s play now in a spirited (if uneven) production onstage at People’s Light. Following its highly praised 2018 staging of the playwright’s better-known Morning’s at Seven, the Malvern troupe has revived this rarely produced comedy of manners by Paul Osborn.
The Vinegar Tree opens with wealthy householder Augustus Merrick (David Ingram) seemingly asleep on the terrace of his 1930s country house, which comes complete with the requisite acidic butler (Stephen Novelli). Enter painter and roue Max Lawrence (Christopher Kelly), soon joined by his would-be lover, the frequently married and romantically devious Winifred (Julianna Zinkel). Winnie has finagled an invitation for their rendezvous from Augustus’s wife Laura (Teri Lamm), the sister she’s not seen for 15 years. The soon-to-be-romantically-entangled party is complete when the Merricks’ daughter Leone (Claire Inie-Richards) returns from college, forlorn and lovelorn, with her hot-and-cold suitor Geoffry (Aubie Merrylees) in pursuit.
Osborn, Shaw, and Coward?
Osborn (1901-1988) was a successful American playwright and screenwriter who grew up in the Midwest and left for greener intellectual pastures, first at Yale (where he and Robert Frost became lifelong friends) and then in New York City. Leaving his day job on the Long Island Railroad to write full-time, Osborn crafted The Vinegar Tree (his first hit), which opened on Broadway in November 1930 and ran for 229 performances. Ten of Osborn’s stage works received Broadway productions, and two of his 12 screenplays, which include The Yearling (1946), East of Eden (1955), and South Pacific (1958), garnered Academy Award nominations.
The Vinegar Tree, high-style and intricately constructed, is rife with myriad entanglements, mistaken identities, and switchback romantic alliances. The action is set in motion by Laura’s dithering disenchantment with her staid, mundane country life; framed by Winnie’s continual desire for new romance; and exploded by Leone’s youthful determination to explore her burgeoning sexuality. Filled with double-entendres and witty banter, it’s an American version of the sophisticated British intellectual comedies of the George Bernard Shaw/Noel Coward ilk.
Languor and finesse
Recreating this very specific milieu is a challenging task to which People’s Light rises intermittently at first and more solidly in the second act. The play demands a certain kind of breezy ease that the company pushes toward but doesn’t always achieve. Often the actors speed through Osborn’s complex text, filled with frequent (and funny) jokes that skitter atop a deeper current of substance. His seemingly light exploration of mores and morals incisively questions behavior and desire using clever, easily traded barbs, hallmarks of this style.
Director Abigail Adams (the company’s emerita artistic director) tends at first to utilize speed to achieve texture, but while the audience responded gamely to Osborn’s often-broad and always well-placed humor, they—and the actors—could benefit from some space to digest his nuances. The more mellow second act is filled with well-sculpted dialogues that focus the characters more deeply, and it’s here that Adams’s direction shines. During the run, these highly experienced actors—clearly and enjoyably in sync with Osborn’s style—will likely settle into the mix of offhand languor and glittering finesse that brings the not-always-savory behavior of the worldly quartet into sharper relief with the fire of the two young characters.
A theatrical breeze
The production’s tone is most perfectly set by designer Marla J. Jurglanis’s elegant clothing. She dresses the women especially beautifully, in flowing, wearable styles that reveal character as well as décolletage. Lee Kinney’s sound design and music set the period to great effect, and Dennis Parichy’s late-show “terrace” lighting is most evocative. Scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman has created a garden (where the play ends) that is picture-perfect, but the Merricks’ living room is underdressed: a 1930s country house like theirs would be overflowing with status-symbol decoration. Props like decanters, tea trays, and handbags are under-utilized, missing important opportunities for the stage business—cigarettes to light, drinks to pour, magazines to pick up and scatter—that would have allowed the actors to offer more character clues. It leaves me wondering whether that visual and practical emptiness was a creative decision.
It was refreshing to attend a matinee opening and to see this rarely mounted show, a theatrical breeze from another dramatic age. So kudos to People’s Light for mounting The Vinegar Tree. The play’s title refers to a type of sumac (Rhus typhina) common in gardens of the period and still planted today. It has beautiful foliage and elegant blooms but sour fruit, and the milky sap that leaks out is irritating to the skin. Osborn’s title (like the play itself) is cunningly layered. It was a treat to see that even after almost a century, a skilled playwright can make us laugh at our foibles, even as he winningly skewers them.
What, When, Where
The Vinegar Tree. By Paul Osborn, directed by Abigail Adams. $40-45. Through July 24, 2022 at Steinbright Stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401), Malvern, PA. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
The Vinegar Tree is recommended for ages 13+ for mature themes. Masks must be worn inside the theater.
People’s Light is a wheelchair-accessible venue and offers audio-visual aids and smart-caption glasses. There will be open-caption performances of The Vinegar Tree July 12 through 17, and a relaxed performance on July 17 at 2pm. Visit online or call (610) 644-3500 for more accessibility information.
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