Following last year’s Orange Tree success with a Susan Glaspell comedy, audiences will be eager to see this rarely revived full-length drama. But it should be noted that the play flopped on Broadway in 1931 after unexpectedly winning the Pulitzer Prize.
New York theatre-goers were more discerning than the awards committee. Despite its credentials, her play is more work in progress than finished article and would have benefited from the attentions of a Shubert play doctor to tidy up character profiles and rewrite moments of bathos that suggest hasty composition.
Based on the reclusive Emily Dickinson, the Alison of the title is an author who lived in her brother’s house writing poems published after her death, bringing posthumous fame. The house is now to be sold and the family gathers to claim keepsakes, among them her niece Elsa, ostracised by the family after running off with a married man.
Jo Combes’ in the round staging serves the play well, as does an excellent cast led with quiet dignity by Christopher Ravenscroft as Alison’s brother John. Grainne Keenan also gives an attractive performance as the banished Elsa who, hoping to spend a nostalgic night in her aunt’s bedroom, becomes the centrepiece of a family melodrama involving burning or saving a cache of love poems that point to an illicit liaison in the poet’s early life.
There are also winning portrayals by Jennifer Higham as a young secretary and Nicholas Gadd as a Chicago reporter who fall in love. Kieron Jecchinis and Catherine Harvey also succeed as a business couple planning to turn the poet’s shrine into holiday apartments. But Emma Pallant, strongly cast as an outspoken daughter-in-law, is ill-served by a plot that inexplicably ditches her character halfway through the evening.