Every production by the revered Mint Theater Company carries the expectation of a fine staging. When British playwright N.C. Hunter’s 1951 play “A Picture of Autumn” was revived by the Mint, I wrote that the company has lovingly revived Hunter’s work and brought out the richness in his drama. So it is with the Mint’s reaching back to revive Hunter’s “A Day by the Sea,” performed in London in 1953 and staged in a brief Broadway run in 1955. The new production is impeccable, especially with respect to the acting and directing.
In writing about “A Picture of Autumn” I also noted that Hunter “surely must have been thinking of Chekhov.” The same can be said about his “A Day by the Sea.” The writing, the acting and the tone of the skillful direction by Austin Pendleton inevitably remind one of Chekhov’s works. In “A Day by the Sea” the author is dealing with lost hopes and British characters destined to play out their lives in disappointment.
When “A Day by the Sea” was staged in London, there were critics who also made the comparison with Chekhov, and that did not sit well at a time when the theater was aflame with the “angry young man” syndrome that swept into popularity. In that trend Hunter, with his traditional style, lost popularity, and it is a tribute to the Mint to yet again call our attention to an important writer from the past. (Hunter died in 1971.)
In “A Day by the Sea” set in coastal Dorset, we meet Laura Anson, a 65-year-old widow played with dug-in firmness by Jill Tanner. Laura has a son, Julian, who is in the Foreign Service posted in Paris, and returns to visit his mother and take part in a family picnic. As written by Hunter and portrayed by Julian Elfer, he is a man who while burying himself in his work and having achieved a limited level of status, feels unfilled both in his job and in his private life. He has a lackluster personality and meager socializing ability that hinders him in his professional relationships. In a tense, anger-producing scene during his visit, he is informed that he is being recalled from Paris to a lesser position in London.
A key element in the plot is the situation that develops between Julian and Frances Farrar, who arrives on a visit. Frances, who was orphaned as a child, was raised in the Anson household, and after growing-up, shocked with her trail of then considered scandalizing relationships, her having married a much older man, who died, and then a much younger man, who committed suicide. This is the first time she has been back after many years. When they were young, Frances was in love with Julian and hoped to marry him, but he was oblivious to her feelings.
The Frances we meet at the present stage of her life is intriguingly played by Katie Firth as a worldly woman, who now has two young children whom she has brought with her. She exhibits sophistication beyond that of the inadequate Julian. When he is made aware of her past feelings for him, he suddenly comes to the conclusion that he wants to bring her the happiness she is lacking. One of the play’s best and most poignant scenes is when Julian manages to stutter out a marriage proposal to her, but one lacking a display of romantic passion. Firth is splendid in the manner in which she rejects him, not with cruelty, but with the certainty that a such a marriage wouldn’t work, and we know that to be true, based on the excellent acting and the writing that defines their disparate characters.
Other characters are also well-defined and impeccably portrayed. For example, veteran actor George Morfogen plays Uncle David as an elderly presence who borders on senility but with outbursts of comments that indicate some connection with reality. Helping to care for him is the acerbic doctor (Philip Goodwin), who loves his booze. An especially sympathetic character is Miss Mathieson, the governess of Frances’s children, impressively acted by Polly McKie.
As the play unfolds, we get an overall portrait of people whose lives have reached a point of stasis, with little hope for significant change, although perhaps Julian will be propelled into a brighter future. But basically they are who they are and the future may not be very different from what we see at this gathering at the family home by the sea. The Mint Theater Company has captured Hunter’s vision with perfection.
(Historical note: When “A Day by the Sea” was staged in London it starred John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, Irene Worth, and Ralph Richardson, with Gielgud directing. The Broadway production starred Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, with direction by Cedric Hardwicke.)
At the Beckett Theater, Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed August 29, 2016.