Aug. 16, 2009 matinee performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
The plot of Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms, now playing at Williamstown Theatre Festival is a very simple one, at least on the surface. All of the action, covering a period of three years in 1960’s, takes place in the staff room of the Cull-Loomis School of English for Foreigners, Cambridge, England.
There, seven members of the faculty come and go, converse with each other as outside on the lawns the foreign students shout over a game of croquet or traverse the halls to the unseen classrooms. Nothing seems to happen except for the rise and fall of the number and variety of foreign students, dependant on the politics of the day.
But this is a Chekhovin play, a dark comedy in which each of the on-stage characters has an off-stage life in which marriages can break up, authors can be rejected, babies be born and people die.
The five scenes in the play are carefully built. Scenes occur on Monday mornings at beginnings of a term and alternate with ones of a Friday evening later. And the play begins with Quartermaine on the stage and ends in semi-darkness on Christmas eve at night with him alone on the stage
It is then that we realize the terms have been his. In more ways than one. That the play has been named for this blundering, inept, teacher who has been a member of the school ever since Eddie Loomis and Thomas Cull founded it years ago.
And it is apparent early on, that Quartermaine has always been an inept outsider, not marching to a different drummer, but not marching at all. He has no life off stage to describe to the others and his feeble attempts to be a part of theirs result in no more than his being asked to babysit while they go off to a movie. He gets no takers for a ticket to a play he suggests as he gets the name and author wrong and not surprisingly gets no takers. As for names, he makes little attempt to remember them, including those of his students.
Jefferson Mays plays this role expertly. We do not dislike him, but there is little to like. He seems totally unaware that except for the school, he has no life at all. He seems to try to be a part of life but has reached late middle age not knowing how one does it. And as each “term” progresses becomes less and less able as a teacher progressing from letting students out early to totally missing his classes. He is a character who does not realize how boring he is.
Meanwhile, the play is alive with characters in whom we can become deeply involved. They have distressing on stage lives, but even more fascinating ones off-stage in which a host of others become real to us. Each has at least one moment in the play in which he/she has a short monolog in which to shine. And shine they all do.
Melanie (Ann Dowd) has a dying mother, who hates her and whom she hates. She has aged with the school and liberated by her mother’s death takes up with a religious cult. Her police involvement concerns swans and her teaching dedication that involves an old recipe. She probably is a great teacher, better than her flighty students deserve.
Henry (Simon Jones) is a family man, long with the school, and with a busy home life concerned with wife and children, especially his eldest Susan and her torturous attempts to achieve her “O-levels.” He is warmly involved with his wife Fanny and the younger children, but always has time to listen to others, to be concerned with their welfare and with his own duties to the school. (For me, the strongest member of a strong cast and his off stage tragedy the most moving.)
Eddie, co-founder of the school and still its head along with his life-partner, Thomas, whom we never see but who lives with him in an apartment on the property and who is ever in his concerns. This role is played movingly by John Horton. His off-stage tragedy is the greatest in determining much of the plot.
Derek (a part-time newcomer to the staff ) has only small off stage tragedies. The aunt who dies leaves him money, and he marries a girl and gets her pregnant. Meanwhile he wounds himself in small ways on bikes and door knobs, arrives the first day of his first term with torn pants and is in general the clown. However he is aggressive and fighting for a full time job and argues manfully for it. People may mistake his name and keep calling him Dennis, but he will march in step and get on. Jeremy Beck in this role is a delight.
Morgan Hallett plays Anita. Her offstage life includes a faithless lover whom she eventually captures, marries, and bears his child, only discover that she no longer loves him. She is pert and charming and young and probably a good teacher. Since Nigel, her eventual husband, fails with his magazine and turns out not to have been her Prince Charming, she obviously still needs her job.
Mark (Stephen Kunken) is a self-indulgent would-be author, so busy with the fourth version of the novel that will change the world, that he neglects his wfeh and child to a point that she goes home to mother. The child “little Tom” so referred to only by bumbling Quartermaine, continues to age off- stage although evntually Mark gives up on on literature a gets his family bsck Mark has some grand “solos” and plays them to the hilt.
All of these six give us fascinating characters, well played and moving. They are very real as is is this very realistic play. Director Maria Aitkin moves the seven about the faculty room with skill and subtle nuance. She paces scenes well and weaves the comedy into the pathos. The entire cast is a tight-knit ensemble that works.
The ending of the play strongly evokes Chekhov. When Quartermaine sits alone in the darkening room with snow falling outside on Christmas eve, if one is a Chekhov fan, as author Simon Gray was, one can almost hear that twang of a note in the air, fading sadly to silence.
And he just sits there – murmuring, ”Oh Lord! (pause) Well—I say—(pause) Oh, Lord! (long pause)”
Curtain on silence.