The play is more character-driven and reflective than Hellman’s other work for the stage; it’s like an apolitical premonition of the success the author would enjoy as an imaginative if not outright mendacious memoirist, creator of shrines to her own political integrity and her liaison with Hammett. Its characters tend toward stereotype, but British directors sometimes have a way with our Southern writers, and under David Jones’s guidance, Hellman’s flawed lot of balked souls come alive, touching the heart as well as making you want to slap them. Hickey has the toughest job, making sympathetic the careless, sometimes consciously cruel artist manqué Nick, who churns up old losses either without meaning to or as something to do. The Dick Cavett–esque Hickey captures the obtuse boyishness in Nick, scampering about in a bowlegged stoop, trying to get someone, anyone, to come out and play. And Hecht brings an exotic, gracious sadness to his outsider wife, who has been dragged into this play too many times before.
The most delicious performance is by the incomparable Franz, who won a Tony as the grittiest Linda Loman in memory. As the acerb, older Mrs. Ellis, she has all the funniest lines, the best of which are priceless. As the candid Constance, Janney marries harshness to vulnerability, no mean feat. Rufus Collins nicely underplays the alcoholic Ned, for whom there is no longer any hangover of self-deception. Maryann Plunkett, as a blond-frizzled Rose Griggs, whose husband wants to divorce her, is vapid, to be sure, but not without dignity. As for Mamie Gummer, acting is mother’s milk to her — mother being Meryl Streep. Not only does Gummer dare to take on a role that requires an accent and dispatch it naturally; she also makes the dependent Sophie accommodating but tough, sometimes in the course of a single, suddenly shutdown gesture. If we must have a thespian dynasty, this beats hell out of Kate Hudson.
Another troubling homecoming is the focus of THE WIDOW’S BLIND DATE (at Gloucester Stage through September 2). Gloucester Stage founding artistic director Israel Horovitz’s 1983 play is an ugly, powerful piece of work, the point of which is not that you can’t go home again but that you can never fully escape the nasty hole of your childhood. Part of Horovitz’s “New England Blue” series set in working-class Massachusetts, the play has sociological implications, of course. Two of its three characters are lumpen lugs without the brains or drive to escape the rut into which they were born. The third, a “hoity-toity” female New Yorker in town to visit her dying brother, finds herself sinking back into the quicksand of the past. Or perhaps she puts her dainty foot right in. Whatever the play’s allegorical intent, The Widow’s Blind Date is at heart a revenge tragicomedy, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame (“The Visit”) removed to the baling-press room of a wastepaper company in Wakefield, circa 30 years ago. (For my money, the play, bristling with desperate male yearning and misdirected misogyny, would work better if its time period were clearer.)