Gardens can be dangerous places for women. Consider Eve, tricked by a snake. And then there's Susan, undone by a rake.
The heroine of Alan Ayckbourn's "Woman in Mind" has concussed herself in the most cliched way possible by stepping on the wrong side of a garden implement. Like Samuel Beckett's Krapp slipping on the banana peel, Susan's undignified pratfall is symptomatic of a larger inability to control fate — or to accept responsibility for making a better life.
But where Beckett's decrepit memoirist has his past and its illusions about the great days yet to come, Susan has a series of hallucinations of the alternate life she wishes she had. In director Steve Scott's sparkling but suitably unsettling staging of Ayckbourn's 1985 classic for Eclipse Theatre Company, one wonders whether insanity — temporary or not — is preferable to the everyday madness of crushing disappointment and loneliness.
As the hapless (and also pratfall-prone) local doctor, Bill (Larry Baldacci) tends to Susan (Sally Eames) at the play's outset, she engages in a series of pithy fantasy conversations with her winsome daughter, Lucy (Jess Berry), her rakish brother, Tony (Phil Higgins) and her debonair husband, Andy (James Houton). She is more than a little peeved that the doc doesn't share her belief in the champagne-swilling, tennis-playing bon vivants that surround her, and that he insists on providing a different narrative about her family life.
When we meet the people with whom Susan actually lives, it's clear why the hallucinations look so good, and why she tells the doctor "You're describing someplace I wouldn't choose to live, even in my wildest nightmares." Her real husband, Gerald (Ted Hoerl), is a stuffy Anglican vicar devoted to writing a history of the parish. Her martyred sister-in-law, Muriel (Jeannie Affelder), ruins every meal she cooks and ruminates upon the chances of ghostly visitations from her dead husband. And Susan's son, Rick (Jack Miggins), has just returned from a two-year stint with a cult that requires him not to speak directly to his parents. But as even her imaginary family takes on dark undertones, we wonder whether Susan's mental state was in disarray long before the rake smacked her on the pate.
Ayckbourn long ago outstripped the early comparisons to Neil Simon — though, like Simon, revivals of his work often seem consigned to community theaters rather than major regional outfits this side of the pond. But the structure of "Woman in Mind" marked a major departure in style from his earlier farces and acidic portraits of marriage on the rocks.
Though it feels less formally radical than perhaps it did in the mid-1980s (television's "United States of Tara" most recently limned the same woman-with-dissociative-identity-disorder territory), the intimate and rather surprisingly warmhearted Eclipse production shows it still works as a portrait of a woman who has fallen between the generational gap — too young to be a sturdy survivor of the Depression and World War II, and too old (or complacent) to have joined forces with feminism's quest for self-actualization.
Eames, who never leaves the stage, unfolds a lovely and modulated performance as Susan, even as the character faces increasing befuddlement and fear. Affelder and Baldacci deliver little comic gems as semioutsiders to the Susan-Gerald-Rick triangle of resentments. Their attempts to provide comfort — Muriel with horrible food, Bill with awkward attempts to humor Susan's imaginary family by making bunnies out of handkerchiefs — backfire on a regular basis. We simultaneously laugh and squirm in recognition at the narrow confines of Susan's real life. By the end, "Woman in Mind" is a requiem for a dream life that keeps too many of us stranded in emotional deserts masquerading as gardens.
When: Through May 19
Where: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $28 at 773-935-6875 or eclipsetheatre.com