A husband’s infidelity and its effect on his wife, daughter and lover is the subject of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s “Honour.” Durham’s Ward Theatre Company, the performance component of Ward Acting Studio, features four current and former studio members in an absorbing, intimate production.
Murray-Smith’s 1995 one-act looks at what happens when Gus, a noted journalist, falls for an attractive, fledgling writer, Claudia. Gus and his wife Honor, a prize-winning poet, have been married, seemingly happily, for 32 years. But Gus is suddenly seized with a rush of passion, encouraged by Claudia, and leaves Honor for the much younger woman.
Shocked, Honor tries reasoning with Gus, citing loyalty and honour (the playwright’s spelling choice to distinguish the title attribute from the character’s name). Gus claims their marriage had lost its passion long ago and now he’s free to be himself. When Honor tells their daughter Sophie, she rages angrily at both parents.
An ensuing series of two-person scenes, rotating through all the combinations, reveal surprising accusations of blame as well as expressions of grudging admiration. All learn things about themselves that will help them move forward.
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The script is best when wary opponents spar with pithy sarcasm and witty jibes. Less successful are those scenes in which Gus and Claudia discuss literature and writing in dense, thesis-like terms. But the play does pose bold questions about marriage and the dynamics that develop.
The production takes place in the company’s small office space that accommodates about two-dozen seats. The action plays out in an inviting living room setting (created collaboratively by the participants) built into the office room itself. Lighting from functional lamps and track lights add pleasing warmth, although sometimes the levels are dimmer than ideal.
Director Wendy Ward’s cast includes one absolute standout in Katie Sheffield’s Claudia, who vividly communicates the character’s predatory confidence but also her fear of being vulnerable. Nancy Ellis’ Honor draws sympathy for the character’s dilemma. Ellis delivers much of her dialogue with admirable depth and gallows humor, although sometimes in a too-measured pace. Tom Stackhouse gives Gus an appropriate self-serving characterization, but plays him so laid back, within a limited emotional range, that it tends to sap his scenes’ energies.
Alexandra Petkus appears as daughter Sophie only in Skype-style video projections as if speaking from her college dorm computer. The videos aren’t very clear and are filmed too far away for expressive details. Having Sophie confront her parents and Claudia in the same room, as the playwright intended, would likely have allowed Petkus more variation in delivery, which is unrelentingly edgy in the videos.
The play is usually a tight 90 minutes, but musical interludes from Austin songwriter Jean Synodinos, along with projections of Edward Hopper paintings and a redundant video of the family’s reactions, make the production’s two hours a long sit, removing some of the script’s zing.
Still, the plot’s situation should hit home to many. The feeling of being right there in the room also adds a gripping immediacy that is emotionally satisfying.
Where: Ward Theatre Company, 4905 Pine Cone Drive, Suite 12, Durham
When: 7:30 p.m. July 28-29; Aug. 4-5, 11-12; 2 p.m. July 29-30; Aug. 5-6, 12
Info: 917-816-2122 or wardtheatrecompany.com