An exceptional collaboration of three Vermont theaters this year is now in its final phase as Weston Playhouse offers its segment of Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy The Norman Conquests. Ayckbourn constructed the plays to stand alone, and enjoying the abundant humor in Weston's production of Round and Round the Garden doesn't depend on having seen the earlier shows. But you can credit the cast members, who have portrayed the same characters in all three plays, for locating those laughs so well.
The setting is an English country house on a weekend in July 1973. Annie still lives in the family home, taking care of her mother, but she's asked her brother, Reg, and his wife, Sarah, to spot her so she can have a short holiday. The specifics of her plans leak out slowly and with maximum comedic impact. Annie is headed for a naughty weekend with her sister Ruth's husband, Norman, who's eager to charm any woman in his path. The tryst has been weeks in the planning, but it's instantly abandoned when family members and Annie's neighbor and potential suitor, Tom, get wind of it.
Round and Round the Garden is a little meditation on the fragility of passion. Gung-ho Norman sneaks in to carry off Annie, but scraping his leg on the garden's brambles is enough to shatter his wooing composure. Annie has nothing but second thoughts, some of which are musings on her feelings for the likable but unromantic Tom. Given Norman's inclination to proposition any female he sees, misunderstandings reach a peak when the question "Does Norman know?" can be considered with far too many possible implications.
The events of the trilogy play out concurrently in the same weekend time frame. Only the audience's vantage point changes, watching the characters alternately in living room and dining room and garden. The plays can be presented in any order, but Round and Round the Garden comes closest to crowning the series with an ending.
Ayckbourn's trilogy is difficult for a single theater to present because it limits the variety most companies require for a successful season. A partnership of three of Vermont's professional theaters was the solution. Northern Stage presented Living Together in April, followed by Dorset Theatre Festival's production of Table Manners in June.
The cast members have been working together for months, and their ease with each other, and with their characters, shows in their performances. Some of the funniest moments are built from one actor supporting another, sharing attention instead of competing for it, and earning the laughs by letting the moment take them by surprise.
Director Michael Berresse complements Ayckbourn's dry British wit with physical humor, and his blocking makes the garden a place for the characters' double takes, double entendres and just plain doubling over in laughter — or in pain.
Ayckbourn's strength is making us root for these characters, ludicrous though they are. We want Annie to find love and Tom to find Annie. We want Norman's free spirit to run untrammeled and Sarah's uptight rectitude to be torn down. We want Reg to get his game of catch and Ruth to forgive Norman as easily as she forgets him. The playwright supplies the potential, but the actors create the audience's connections to these characters.
David Mason plays the shy Tom as a man who freezes under scrutiny, always looking for a way to disappear but never bold enough to dart for freedom. Mason has a genius for making Tom look oblivious, forcing other characters more or less to chisel a reaction out of him.
Jenni Putney uses broad, sloppy grins and grimaces to portray Annie. Shambling about the grounds, she gives up easily on untangling a garden hose, and likewise seems content to let her love life stay knotted in indecision. All of which makes the eventual spark of hope Putney gives her a pleasure to see.
As Reg, Mark Light-Orr is a fountain of small talk who can steadfastly overlook anything interesting around him as he babbles aimlessly. When he's given a chance to contemplate a romantic dalliance of his own, the far-fetched notion seems to strain his imagination to the breaking point.
Caitlin Clouthier plays Sarah as engaged in a constant search for control, even taking on the insects in the garden with a pesticide sprayer of dubious efficacy. When Norman makes a flirtatious overture, Clouthier zigzags from yes to no and back again faster than a skier negotiates a slalom course.
Norman is played by Richard Gallagher, whose Olympian charm and physical goofiness are nicely channeled into both a drunken collapse and a series of coy propositions that devolve into desperate pleas. Convinced of his animal magnetism, he proclaims his life's mission: He only wants to make women happy.
As Ruth, Ashton Heyl conducts a master class in comic frustration. Vanity keeps Ruth from wearing her glasses, and Heyl's rubber-faced squints are pure silliness. When Tom mistakenly believes she's interested in him, Heyl's efforts to set him right are like the last, failed effort to stay balanced in a canoe.
Scenic designer David Arsenault's lushly detailed set is simply enchanting. The theater may be air conditioned, but it's easy to be convinced we're outside an ivy-covered house in an English garden on a hot summer day. Stuart Duke's expert lighting brings out every bit of floral texture, and when moonlight falls over the garden sculpture, we're equally ready for romance or craziness. Costumes by Charles Schoonmaker suit the characters and the period perfectly.
All six actors appear to take immense pleasure in entertaining us. On opening night last Friday, the audience shared the happy mood, laughing easily and settling into the play's sunny pleasure.
Three theaters have given Vermonters a gift this year. They deserve our thanks for the rare chance to see this full comic work, and for all the wit, sputtering, pratfalls and sweet desire to, as Norman says, make us all happy.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Three's a Crowd Pleaser"
Alex Brown writes fiction (Finding Losses, 2014) and nonfiction (In Print: Text and Type, 1989) and earns a living as a consultant to magazine publishers. She studied filmmaking at NYU and has directed a dozen plays in central Vermont.