Ladies in Retirement
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
March 11, 2010
Pulse Ensemble Theatre's production of Ladies in Retirement is a good, old-fashioned thriller staged with good, old-fashioned thoroughness. The pacing may be a little slow, but director Amnon Kabatchnik elicits several chilling moments from this 1940 drama about a woman who'll stop at nothing to save her two sisters. From directing to acting to design, the production revels in carefully observed detail.
The play's melodramatic overtones could easily slip into mocking camp, but Kabatchnik and his skilled cast take their work seriously. Each actor creates a fully-realized person from characters that could otherwise become caricature—a spinster, a nun, a rakish neighbor, a flirtatious maidservant, the dotty aunts. As Leonora Fiske, the former chorus girl/courtesan who's retired to a lonely country house, Mikal Sarah Lambert finds genuine warmth beneath a miserly exterior. Camille Mazurek exudes quiet determination as Ellen Creed, the "clever" sister who must find a way of caring for her rather eccentric siblings, Louisa and Emily. As said siblings, Hanna Hayes and Carol Lambert are wonderfully strange without being over-the-top. Susan Barrett finds a simple honesty in the role of kindly Sister Theresa, while Ashley Taylor is a lively Lucy, the housemaid. Burt Grinstead brings just the right amount of caddish charm to Albert, Ellen's ne'er-do-well nephew.
Kabatchnik balances the ensemble well, and he eloquently stages the play's suspenseful moments, particularly its penultimate, late-night tableau. Every moment is given its full due—sometimes so much due the pace begins to drag, particularly when characters puzzle out a discovery, or one act transitions to the next. No matter. The play nevertheless builds to a poignant, surprising conclusion.
The design richly evokes the time (1885), a truly miraculous accomplishment on a tight budget. Zhanna Gurvich's country drawing room is suitably comfy and sinister, replete with a flight of stairs for foreboding entrances. Angela M. Kahler's lush costumes clearly delineate the class differences between Ellen, bedecked in somber navy and brown, and her employer, Leonora, whose puffed, candy-colored dress looks nearly like a bonbon come to life. The play's many obscure props—which include a bottle of paraffin wax, a blotter, and innumerable bric-a-brac—are realized with period perfect precision by props mistress Deborah Gaouette. Sound designer Louis Lopardi brings to life the small but significant noises of the era, down to the repeated clip-clop of a horse and buggy in the distance. Steve O'Shea's subtle lighting changes do much to evoke the spooky mood, particularly in the evanescent, dim nighttime sequences.
In all, this is a fine, well-measured production—a lavishly detailed gem of suspense.