I’m not sure that I will ever again bear witness to a local theatrical production that has a more suitable setting than the Great House at the Crane Estate is for The Trustees/Castle Hill Productions of Lettuce and Lovage, an engaging and often humorous character study given a unique presentation where its venue itself actually gets listed in the program as part of the cast.
We were part of just 40 audience members invited into Ipswich’s Great House, plumbing mogul Richard T. Crane’s a remarkable 59-room Stuart-style mansion beautifully furnished with period antiques. As we took our seats at the base of the grand staircase with Baroque music quietly playing in the background, we meet Lettice Doufett (played exquisitely by Cynthia August) appearing as a dowdy and dull tour guide, blandly giving rather uninteresting facts about the old Fustian House in Wilshire, England, to a group of very aged tourists all using walkers and no doubt every one of them hard of hearing. As group after group rotate through, Lettice’s frustration at the complete dullness of the facts slowly transform her into “embellishing” the details, particularly regarding a legendary and tragic fall down the staircase with ever increasing fancifulness; her dresses keep getting more colorful, her skirts getting shorter with each new (and now enthralled) group of tourists. It’s a hilarious transition and her quick costume changes are smooth and seamless.
Soon, the manager of the Preservation Trust, Lotte Schoen (played by Patricia Peterson Jamison) joins a tour. Infuriated by what she hears, she calls Lettice into her office the next day. In Scene 2, in Miss Schoen’s office, we learn about Lettice and her theater background, and understand that perhaps she missed her calling; however, she is fired from her tour guide job. In Act II, the audience members move to another room in the Great House. This is the setting for Lettice’ basement flat, filled with old theater props, most from her salad days of performing Richard III. Miss Schoen pays her a visit to help her find another job, and, after some copious imbibing of a drink called “lovage,” we learn about Schoen’s strange secrets from her past, and soon the women find common ground. In the final act, Lettice has been accused of attempted murder and her assigned defense lawyer, Mr. Bardolf (adeptly played by Christopher J. DeStefano) makes a noble but difficult attempt to sort through the facts. It’s a very funny scene; his frustration over her histrionic theatrics is wonderful. And when her complex relationship with Lotte is finally resolved in a most entrepreneurial way, the audience is part of a toast of lovage that certainly left us satisfied.
Cynthia August’s Lettice Douffet is wonderful. She has a tough act to follow: writer Peter Shaffer wrote the role for Maggie Smith, who enjoyed a long run with the show in the West End. August’s over the top dramatic interpretations just cry-out of a woman who misses her past days of performing classical theater; her copious use of exaggerated facial expressions were superb and often very funny.
Patricia Jamison’s excellent portrayal of Lotte Schoen is the perfect Ying to Lettice’s Yang: strong, stern, unyielding. At first, her character seems one dimensional but we soon learn that she is deeply layered, which eventually bond the two together in rather unique ways.
For Director Kristina Brendel, this production started just as a crazy idea. She herself was a tour guide in the Great House, dressing in period costumes. When she looked at the stairway, she couldn’t help but recall seeing Lettice and Lovage years ago and thinking how wonderful it would be to stage it in an actual historic house. She got her wish and we are all the better for it. Her use of the staircase to set the opening scene is particularly effective. Old theater props in Lettice’s flat seemed as if they were plucked out of a nearby room (and quite possibly were). The whole production flowed smoothly and we really enjoyed moving to a different room for the second act. Yes, the Great House truly was part of the cast.
Surprisingly, Lettice and Lovage is the first theatrical production ever held there. Let’s hope it is just the beginning. If so, I would say we are off to a great start.