The Theatreguide.London Review
The Lady From Dubuque
Haymarket Theatre Spring 2007
How exciting it is when a play you always thought was poor is proven, by a sensitive director and cast, to be very much better than you ever imagined!
The Lady From Dubuque is a beautiful play by a master playwright, performed by a near-perfect cast, and I urge you to give yourself the gift of experiencing it.
Edward Albee's drama was a flop on Broadway in 1980, running less than three weeks, which puts me in the fairly exclusive club of those who saw it. It seemed then, and later when I read and analysed it, a cold and misshapen play with an unpleasant message and a nasty tone.
How wrong I and everyone else was! The Lady From Dubuque is a warm and humorous play written with love and compassion. And it just took nearly thirty years and the insights of director Anthony Page and the precious Maggie Smith to show us that.
This is a play about death - or, rather, about dying, and about who that experience belongs to and who it does not.
It speaks in a mode that is not realistic - at least two of the characters appear to be supernatural, and the others repeatedly break the naturalistic illusion to speak to the audience - but one that is thoroughly accessible and highly entertaining.
We open on a party of three thirty-something couples, and quickly sense that their friendship is built on in-jokes and joshing insults. But the hostess, Jo, is dying of cancer, and her awareness of that, along with her pain, has crippled her social censor, so that she no longer has the energy to disguise her feelings in jokes.
The others charitably try their best to paper over her lapses, but her bitterness is infectious and the party turns sour before the guests depart, leaving husband Sam to tend to her agony.
The next morning Sam awakens to find two strangers in the house, an older woman and an elegant black man. She claims to be Jo's mother from Iowa, which Sam knows to be untrue, but Jo runs to her for comfort. As Sam tries unsuccessfully to evict these invaders, they in turn separate him from Jo.
Is the Lady the Angel of Death or just an Angel of Comfort In the Process of Dying? In either case, she and her escort make it clear that Jo's adventure is far more significant than Sam's pain, and one from which he must be excluded.
In 1980 Irene Worth played the Lady as so cold and dismissive that the play seemed to be rejecting and denying the validity of Sam's grief, even as - since he was the only feeling character we had - the audience wanted to sympathise with him.
But now the inimitable Maggie Smith completely changes the Lady and all she implies, by speaking the same lines with warmth and humour.
It is no surprise that Maggie Smith can find laughs in lines one never suspected were jokes - and I should pause to say that whole chunks of the play are very funny.
But what she and director Page also know is that the laughter is not bitter or nasty. Her Angel of Death is still there to take Jo away from Sam, but as a compassionate gift to both of them. And that makes all the difference.
Albee's play is about the need for both the dying and the surviving to let go, and the Lady from Dubuque is there to help both Jo and Sam in the painful but ultimately relieving process.
Almost the last thing the Lady says to Sam is 'Don't worry about Jo,' which in 1980 was a dismissive 'This is none of your business any more.' But as Maggie Smith delivers the line it is a comforting 'We're here to carry the burden for you.'
Peter Francis James is still too cold and oily as the Lady's escort for my taste, and it would have been nice to let him give us an occasional glimpse of compassion.
Robert Sella is moving as the husband who has to learn that his pain, however great, is not what this moment is about, and Catherine McCormack touching as Jo, letting us see when it is the pain speaking and not her better self. Jennifer Regan stands out among the guests as a seeming bimbo whose secret is that she is smarter and more sensitive than the others.
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