When a news reporter from Chicago turns up on the steps of Alison Stanhope’s estate in search of a story, he unknowingly uncovers some heavily guarded family secrets. To the world Alison Stanhope is regarded as one of America’s foremost poets, but on the 18th anniversary of her death, Alison’s family is getting ready to sell her estate and finally putting her ghost to rest.
Though long dead, Alison still haunts them in their thoughts and desires. Plagued by her presence each family member is struggling with his or her own moral compass. Patriarch and brother to the late Alison John Stanhope (David Jeffery), exemplifies the life not fully lived, of giving up on what could have been for the sake of his children. His own children also struggle. Eldest son Eben (Brandon Lorenzo) struggles with wanting to be more than just the father and husband that he is. Middle child Elsa (Nyssa Hamilton) caused a scandal when she was out casted by both society and family after giving into her forbidden love with a married man. She is forever seeking for forgiveness and struggles with losing the love of those that are supposed to be there for you no matter what. Last is youngest child Ted (James Martin); Ted is trying to find his place in the world, and sets about trying to get closer to his dead Aunt through her writings, but with a nosey English professor constantly on his case to give him an “exclusive” insight into the deceased poet, Ted must decide if marks and his reputation is of more value then hers.
Written by Pulitzer prize winning playwright Susan Glaspell, Alison’s House is inspired by the life and work of American poet Emily Dickinson The play is set in Glaspell’s native home Iowa in the year 1899 - when the world was just on the cusp of the 20th century and where people’s moral values would always prevail over right or reason. In a case where life imitates art, Glaspell was denied by Dickenson’s family to her name or work within the play itself, and like her characters had to respect the wishes of the family and so the play was cast as Stanhopes.
If you look through the program for The Depot Theatre’s 2018 season you will find the running theme of iconic plays written by woman and giving them a contemporary voice. So it is no surprise that for me the standout performances were by three females. Nyssa Hamilton was wonderful as Glaspell’s Elsa. And Veronica Clavijo as Eben’s controlling wife Louise, who to me represented “society” capturing perfectly the anger, frustration and hostility casting it onto Elsa. Lastly was Domanique De Marco who played Mrs Hodges. Even though her part was quite small, her character was larger than life as a buyer who is interested in the estate. She’s an eccentric woman with too much money and time on her hands. It was a nice comic relief that was needed with all the drama but in no way overshadowed the performances or felt out of place.
My only criticism of the play is that it is defiantly driven by dialogue (it’s a two-hour play) so my mind at times did wander, but it never strayed too far as it usually wandered to the set design - by actor David Jeffery who did a great job recreating the mansion in such a small intimate space - or to the gorgeous period costumes from the team at The Wardrobe.
It's interesting to watch a play that reminds us of what separates us from our past and what connects us. Technology may have changed the means in how we do this but the premise remains the same. Today we live in a day and age where all life is public and we ask more and more of celebrities to share their personal lives with us. But where does the line cease? When does their life stop being their own and start being a commodity? Is nothing personal anymore? Must we share everything, or can some things just be kept to ourselves for the sake of someone else’s integrity?
Alison's House is playing at Marrickville's Depot Theatre until Saturday April 21st.