Even in a field known for its oddballs, few writers were odder than British novelist Graham Greene. Whether reflecting his own twisted Catholicism (The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair) or drawing from his experiences as a life-long operative with MI-5 (The Third Man, Our Man in Havana), Greene spent a lifetime pursuing, and being pursued by, his inner demons.
So imagine what would happen if he tried to write Auntie Mame. That gives you an idea of his 1969 novel Travels With My Aunt.
Henry Pulling, a retired milquetoast bank manager, meets his Aunt Augusta for the first time at his mother's funeral. Outrageous Augusta draws Henry first from his shell, and then from the safe embrace of his English soul. Soon he's her equal in globe-trotting abandon.
But remember, it's Greene, so this light-hearted romp has some heavy-duty subtext downstairs and some grisly events on top. All of which, by the way, I applaud.
This 1989 stage adaptation, by playwright Giles Harvegal is, as stage adaptations of literary works go, pretty remarkable. There's a lot of narration spoken directly to the audience, but Harvegal is clever enough to select passages both active and interesting. His smartest choice is to have only four people in the cast, two playing Henry and Augusta and the other two playing the rest. This has the terrific effect of inviting us in, giving us a ringside seat for the "creation" of the tale as it's put out over the footlights. It's a very theatrical choice.
And a very dangerous one. This script is rock-solid proof that in the theater, what looks simple is in fact hardest of all. With all the play's character, locale and costume changes, the rhythm of the script and the shaping of the story, it's essential that it look easy. If the staging is unfocused or unshaped, we're always aware of just how much work it's taking.
What we end up with is this production at Apple Hill Playhouse, directed by Iva Jean Saraceni. There are some terrifically talented performers producing flashes of genuine theater, but everyone seems to have been overwhelmed by this deceptively sparse script. It's possible that, as the run progresses, those flashes will turn into a blaze -- at least I hope so.
Travels With My Aunt continues through June 28. Apple Hill Playhouse, 275 Manor Road, Delmont. 724-468-5050 or www.applehillplayhouse.org