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Class privilege and lost love churn in American Players Theatre's The Circle
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Tracy Michelle Arnold as Lady Kitty and Brian Mani as Clive Champion-Cheney
Tracy Michelle Arnold as Lady Kitty and Brian Mani as Clive Champion-Cheney
Credit:Carissa Dixon

The drawing room of Arnold Champion-Cheney is a place of hard-won propriety. While, at 35, Arnold is a moneyed politico on his way up, he was forced to grow up under scandal.

Thirty years ago, his mother, Kitty, left Arnold's father, fleeing to Italy with her lover. That family trauma left an indelible mark on Arnold, who wants everything to be perfect -- down to just the right antique chair in the drawing room.

But fate might have other things in store for Arnold, as his own young wife considers a similar rejection of her marriage.

The title of the latest American Players Theatre production, W. Somerset Maugham's The Circle, gives some indication of where things stand. We don't just have two love triangles, we have a churning cycle in which people may be unable to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Superficially, The Circle has more than a few things in common with Noël Coward's Hay Fever, which APT staged last summer. You've got two plays by British playwrights, written just a few years apart in the 1920s. Add in unconventional families, stately upper-class homes, quotable quips and romantic dalliances. Even many of the cast members are the same between the two shows.

Yet, while Coward's Hay Fever was ultimately a frothy confection, there's a sadness and regret that courses through Maugham's play. APT core company member Brian Mani, as the jilted older man Clive Champion-Cheney, is full of rueful zingers. Reflecting on what's become of his ex-wife, Clive says, "There's no more lamentable pursuit than a life of pleasure" -- something that we learn applies to himself as well.

While Clive is no angel, Mani makes him generally a likable sort. He made peace with his abandonment long ago. When he says things like, "Her soul is as thickly rouged as her face" (of Kitty), it seems more pitying than bitter.

Tracy Michelle Arnold, as Lady Kitty, is not terribly sympathetic, though I don't suppose she's meant to be. When she arrives at the stately home -- where she'll see her ex-husband and son for the first time in thirty years -- she's prattling, self-absorbed and gaudy. Worst of all, she doesn't even recognize her own son, who was only five when she left the family.

It's Susan Shunk, as Arnold's 25-year-old wife, Elizabeth, who has the gravest choice to make. Should she stay in a respectable but passionless marriage to Arnold, or imitate her mother-in-law and run off with the man she really loves?

While there are thorny moral questions here, I found Elizabeth a little tiring at times. She exists in a cocoon of privilege; though she may talk a good game about getting a job if necessary, we know she doesn't mean it.

Paul Hurley (as Arnold) provides some welcome ambiguity: does he fear the breakup of his marriage because he truly loves Elizabeth, or because he dreads the disruption of his life's plan?

In the end, while audiences may not relate to the world of post-World War I privilege in The Circle, the questions posed by the play remain relevant. Beneath the trappings of elegant '20s frocks and fine furniture, essential struggles about happiness, duty and love play out.

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