When Edward Albee’s 1980 play The Lady From Dubuque opened on Broadway, it lasted for just 12 performances. So I imagine they are hoping for a little more success with this production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket featuring a largely American cast, augmented by our very own Dame Maggie Smith. It is a much more challenging work than say Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but director Anthony Page is clearly up for the challenge.
The play starts at a strained party in Connecticut at which three couples have been playing 20 Questions with increasing rancour. It ends when Jo, the hostess who we find out is dying of cancer, can no longer bear her pain. Afterwards, a mysterious woman, the “lady from Dubuque”, who insists she is the mother of the hostess, arrives with a companion and raises more difficult questions.
Precious few answers are offered here and so much is left up to our own interpretations. Is she really Jo’s mother? Is she the angel of death, or perhaps that role is filled by her companion? It is to Maggie Smith’s immense credit that she emerges from this overly cryptic morass with a sinuous performance of dignity and tenderness for the dying Jo and we are actually interested in finding out the truth of her identity. I also liked Catherine McCormack’s Jo, whose boundaries have been well and truly removed by her terminal illness and she is well matched by Robert Sella as her compassionate husband.
Largely though I was not a fan of the play and the way in which members of the cast frequently address the audience. I don’t have a problem with theatre that isn’t straight storytelling, but if it is being complex in order to pass on a message about a much bigger issue but then that message isn’t clearly present in the material (I suspect there were points in here about the wasteful nature of the Western world and issues about American identity but I couldn’t be sure) then it makes it hard to like the show. I don’t mind working a bit at the theatre and having my preconceptions challenged but it is so much more rewarding when it is towards some sort of resolution.