Photo by Michael Brosilow
There’s a lot of literal baggage in Writers’ Theatre’s new show, a delightful adaptation by Giles Havergal that’s warmly staged by Stuart Carden. Stored on shelves along the stage, these suitcases open up to reveal props for a picaresque tale of domestic intrigue and foreign espionage. The author of this literary luggage could only be Graham Greene. The very novel novel is Travels with My Aunt, a thinking adventure that takes the narrating nephew from Southwood, England to Istanbul, Turkey on the Orient Express, then finally to Asuncion, Paraguay.
A nebbish of a banker whose only previous passion was cultivating his dahlias, Henry Pulling (like Patrick Dennis and his wild Auntie Mame) is shaken up by a reunion at his supposed mother’s funeral with his formidable, 75-year-old Aunt Augusta. This lady with a very big past whisks the always astonished Henry away on a complicated trek through Europe which involves art stolen by the Nazis, a hunted fugitive, a South African gigolo who services the not-so-maiden aunt, and assorted eccentric travelers along the colorful route. After this crash course in cosmopolitanism and narrow escapes from Interpol, Henry ends up worldly wise and a bit corrupted. But close contact with Aunt Augusta can produce no other effect.
The two principal relations and more than 25 characters are all performed, wonderfully, by four actors, whose only communal character is the narrator Henry. Clad in bowler hats and dress suits, they distinguish their characters only through accent, tone, expression, posture and gait: The result is all the texture a rich novel could demand. Besides playing Pulling, Sean Fortunato also specializes in a thin-voiced, bold-faced Aunt Augusta, a flinty English dowager with enough grit for a regiment. John Hoogenakker plays most of the other females (without confusing any of their faces or voices) and gives his all to Tooley, a foreign agent who oddly represents the play’s only moral center. LaShawn Banks tackles Wordsworth,
Aunt Augusta’s younger, African rentboy, (His passion for the amoral Augusta does him far more credit than it does her.) Finally, an impish Jeremy Sher plays not just cameo characters but also announces the train arrivals and produces wonderful Foley effects with an umbrella, toy accordion and many other devices.
The result is 170 minutes of captivating storytelling, encased in a tour-de-force: This wonderful quartet creates for a grateful audience a world as well as a novel. Luggage can carry life as well as laundry.—Lawrence Bommer
The production of Travels with My Aunt runs through March 27 at the Writers’ Theatre. Tickets start at $45 and can be purchased online at writerstheatre.org, by phone at 847-242-6000, or at the Box Office located at 664 Vernon Avenue in Glencoe.