Even Hare's digressions within scenes are fraught with contradictory opinions that make us debate within ourselves as the play progresses. Hare makes us listen, which is no easy matter, as he slyly parcels out information in revelatory droplets that only add to the internal rush of the story. Everyone has a view, and their conflicts collide and intertwine in most entertaining, thought-provoking ways as we follow acclaimed London actress Esme Allen (Sally Edmundson) and her family for 16 years, from 1979 to 1995.
Spoiled, self-serving and subject to flattery, widowed Esme is one of those privileged actresses -- and a good one, too, by all accounts -- who has made her life a play. She enjoys the accoutrements of fame yet disdains growing older and having no good parts to play. Esme's loving daughter Amy (Kelli Cousins) is independent and living in London, while Esme herself shares her country house with her aging, cantankerous mother-in-law Evelyn (Sylvia Froman), whose Edwardian values place actors and dogs in the same category. But all in all, it's Esme's life, and so far it's been damn good.
Amy, smart but loving not wisely but too well, brings boyfriend Dominic (Philip Lehl) home to meet Mother. Arrogant and conceited beyond all accomplishments, Dominic in his twit's way puts down theater as hopelessly pass. "We're all watching video," he rants. The images of film and TV are real life, he argues; they have replaced slow conversation on stage. Compounding the tension is Amy's pregnancy and her pact with Dominic not to start a family. In Esme's view, this is tantamount to treason. He is just the wrong choice. With this meeting, everyone's life changes.
Through the ensuing years, Esme and Amy become estranged; Dominic evolves into a dominant force in the popular arts, while their marriage deteriorates into adultery; kindly neighbor Frank (Rutherford Cravens), Esme's sometime bedmate, oversees her dire financial matters; and wheelchair-bound Evelyn, in the throes of Alzheimer's, is a vestige of times past, a constant reminder of what's been lost. Esme is later reduced to acting on a TV hospital soap opera, once anathema to her standards and sense of worth. In the next act, Esme is financially ruined because of Frank's investments, and, bowed but unbroken, indomitable as ever, she makes a small but significant comeback in regional theater, paired with a green-but-eager young actor Toby Cole (Adam Gibbs), who views her as mentor and sage. She has lost everything but her great love to perform. She lives fully only on stage, and so she must "go it alone" as the curtain rises on the grungy fringe theater where the show goes on.
In a full-blooded performance as Esme, Edmundson is magnificent. Too long absent from our stages, she reminds us anew why she's regarded as one of Houston's cultural landmarks. She is so "there," she could hold us enrapt even if a hurricane blew off the roof, as she imbues Esme with an unconquerable will and spirit that, delusional or not, holds her -- and us -- firm in any storm.
Edmundson is surrounded by an equally enriched ensemble cast under Leslie Swackhamer's detailed, consummate direction. Cousins portrays Amy with depth and goodness. Though betrayed by love, she stands steadfast and true, trying desperately to clear away the fog from her mother's view of the world. Lehl plays the condescending Dominic with all the self-righteousness of a future prophet, which makes his final act of contrition in Esme's dressing room a heartfelt, if monetary, blessing. Cravens is ideal as Frank, the wily country English gentleman gone to seed, protecting Esme like a bulldog but then using her for his own purposes. Froman, a veteran of the Houston stage, knows better than anyone how to deliver a put-down; her old-school English mother-in-law Evelyn is spot-on perfect, either with wicked tongue or shouting through dementia. And Gibbs sensitively portrays young actor Cole, convincing the audience that Dominic was wrong -- theater will survive.
Hare's haunting play whirls right through our hearts and inside our brains. It's a provocative evening in the theater, wonderfully realized, and that is something both rare and welcome.