nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 24, 2007
No less a personage than William Dean Howells declared James A. Herne's 1890 drama Margaret Fleming to be an "epoch-making play"; that alone would seem to make us want to pay attention to this lost work from America's theatrical past, now begin given a fine and clear-headed revival by Alex Roe at Metropolitan Playhouse.
Margaret Fleming turns out to be fascinating. The play tells the story of a happily married couple, Philip and Margaret Fleming, proud parents of a baby girl named Lucy and as ecstatically filled with love and desire for each other as their Victorian Era sensibilities will allow (and they're pretty liberal, at that). Philip runs a mill, and though there are intimations of certain business difficulties, it's also clear that the Flemings are very, very wealthy. Margaret oversees a small assemblage of servants, including Lucy's Germanic nurse, Maria.
So, here's what happens: The stern Doctor Larkin warns Philip that the young woman with whom he's had an indiscretion has just given birth to their illegitimate child; concurrently, Maria confides in Margaret that her unmarried sister, who is in very ill health, has just had a child, but she can't discover who the father is. Maria persuades Margaret to visit her sister, and she does so without Philip's knowledge. When she gets there, the facts reveal themselves in their ugly glory. Margaret has been betrayed, her sad young rival has died, and the whole world that Margaret and Philip thought they were masters of has been turned upside down.
Now, it would be wrong of me to tell you any more: check out this singular melodrama and see how an American writing in the shadow of Ibsen (though admittedly without the master's depth) resolves a moral dilemma. For me, Margaret Fleming offers invaluable insights about how much and how little American society has changed in 110 years; on the one hand, our capacity to be shocked by certain events has been entirely lost, while on the other, our obsession with gossip and reputation remains steadfast. And on the third hand, the way we treat the unfortunate and downtrodden in our midst has perhaps not so much been fixed as simply understood to be problematic. All of these issues surface in Margaret Fleming, and provide food for thought that contemporary plays on the same subjects would not.
Herne's plotting and dramaturgy—state-of-the-art for American playmaking in 1890—feel creaky nowadays. And some of the assertions made in this play, especially Larkin's explanation of the hysterical nature of glaucoma, are hopelessly dated. Credit director Roe with taking Herne's creations seriously and on their own terms, letting them speak to us in their own voices, no matter how old-fashioned they seem, so we can take their measure and conclude what we will about them.
Margaret Loesser Robinson, a Metropolitan Playhouse alum several times over, turns in another distinguished performance in the title role, showing us Margaret's petulance, pride, and deep-down fine nature. Teresa Kelsey is alternately weepy and bitter (appropriately) as Maria; Sidney Fortner (who also designed the show's many excellent costumes) plays three other Fleming servants with aplomb. Scott Sortman (as Maria's erstwhile husband) and Jack McKeane (as two youngsters) offer strong support as well. But neither Todd Woodard as Philip Fleming nor Peter Judd as Larkin had quite found their way into their respective roles at the performance reviewed; that will likely change with time.
Margaret Fleming is a museum piece, in its way, but museums are enormously entertaining and useful. Don't let the fact that this is a 100+-year-old American play that you've never heard of keep you from experiencing it. Kudos to Alex Roe and Metropolitan for once again teaching us who we are by shoring up our theatrical heritage!