As I have remarked before, the mark of a true theatre destination is not only excellence in production, but the staging of new work. Theatre 33, born as the summer off-shoot company of Willamette University, but increasingly standing on its own feet, helps fulfill both functions in Salem with its mission of staging new plays by Oregon playwrights. Its latest show, Maresfield Gardens, which closed on August 14, was the premier production of a one-woman piece written and performed by Susan Coromel, directed by Rod Ceballos. It was a superb production in all respects.
Maresfield Gardens tells the story of real-life figure Marry “Mabbie” Burlingame, granddaughter of Louis Tiffany (yes, those Tiffanies, the ones with the diamonds and the glass and the lamps), who, at the age of eight, began a life-time of psychoanalysis under Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter. The play is told in memory, as Mabbie recollects her Tiffany ancestry, her childhood in Vienna, and her sometimes fraught relationships with family members (mother, brother, and removed father). But mostly, the play is about Mabbie’s tempestuous relationship to the unseen Anna Freud and the literally thousands of hours she clocked on the psychoanalytic couch. The purpose of the analysis was ostensibly to fight Mabbie’s manic-depression, but she was also exploited by Anna Freud for the Tiffany money, for Anna’s scholarly advancement, and for the sheer power of it. Mabbie’s quest to find herself comes in spite of the psychiatry, not because of it. Refreshingly, the play offers no stigma against mental illness; if anything, it is a cautionary tale against the efficacy (and asymmetrical power structure) of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Coromel’s performance here is riveting. Every moment is fascinating, from Mabbie’s simple exploration of the space to the mystery of the tiny envelopes she finds in unexpected places. Coromel slips seamlessly between Mabbie and the various characters she recollects, frequently with a comic turn. The play, despite its somewhat somber subject matter, has quite a bit of humor. As a one-woman show, Coromel holds the stage for nearly ninety minutes, but she makes it look effortless. The directing by Rod Ceballos enhances the performance. He allows the play to take its beats and silences, while pushing Mabbie through the highs and lows of her experiences.
Full compliments also go to the design team on Theatre 33’s first fully-staged production. The Sound design by Rachel Kinsman Steck is haunting, and creeps into the audience’s heads from the sides. Who knew that that the metallic clack and scraping of knitting needles could be so disturbing. The scenic design by Christopher Harris is lavish, with Tiffany lamps, folding screens, and the obligatory chaise lounge. Set and costume evoke the 1920s and 30s, when most of the action takes place, although the actual setting of the play is 1974, in Mabbie’s family home in England. However, I had no idea this was the actual time and place until the talk back. As a memory play, the true landscape is Mabbie’s heart and mind.
Salem locals may find some similarities to Blonde Poison, the one-woman show at the Verona Studio from March 2015, which, you may recall, was also directed by Coromel. Both feature German accents, the presence of Nazis, and the same dénouement, but these are superficial connections only. The women (and performers) in both plays take their own journeys.
Maresfield concludes Theatre 33’s summer season, but look for their winter production, a new radio show adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Once again, expect to see original work of excellent quality featuring some of the mid-valley’s most talented theatre artists.