Reviewed by James Karas
Trifles is the title of a one-act play by Susan Glaspell and chances are you have not heard of the play or the author. A Wife for a Life is a one-act play by Eugene O’Neill and you have no doubt heard of the author but it is unlikely that you know of his first attempt as a dramatist.
Despair not for the Shaw Festival will alleviate your ignorance and entertain you for almost an hour with its current production of both plays at the Court House Theatre under the title Trifles.
Both plays involve unhappy marriages. In Trifles, a man is found dead in his bed with a rope around his neck. If we were in England, the setting would be a large house in the country and a snooty butler would be the prime suspect. In Trifles, the action is set in the kitchen of a lonely farmhouse in the middle of Nowhere, U.S.A.
The County Attorney (Jeff Irving), Sheriff Peters and his wife (Graeme Somerville and Kaylee Harwood), and neighbours Lewis Hale and his wife (Benedict Campbell and Julain Molnar) arrive to examine the scene of the crime and gather evidence. The wife of the dead man has already been arrested as a prime suspect and we never see her.
As the men search for clues, the women look around the kitchen and reveal a great deal about the dead man and his wife. The suspected wife was the unhappy and abused victim of a brute who, among many other sins, no doubt, wrung the neck of her bird. The women talk of “trifles” according to the men, but we know better.
The performances are first-rate. Benedict Campbell is the rough-hewn, rather garrulous farmer. Molnar is his decent wife who is much smarter than she appears. Harwood is the better-educated and more sophisticated city woman while her Sheriff husband and the County Attorney are officious bureaucrats.
The ending is very satisfactory.
Trifles morphs into A Wife for a Life without a break or change of set. The lonely farmhouse kitchen becomes a prospector’s lonely cabin. Jack, a young man played by Jeff Irving tells an Older Man, played by Benedict Campbell, about a woman he fell in love with in a mining town in South America. She was married to a much older man who was a brute. She reciprocated Jack’s love but stayed with her husband until he left her.
It turns out that the Older Man is in fact the husband of the woman that Jack loves and we will soon find out the meaning of the play’s title. Old Pete, the third character in the playlet, is a miner played by Jeff Irving.
A very interesting playlet, again, done well. Meg Roe directs both pieces and she takes advantage of the similarity in place and people by having the plays acted without interruption.
The performance takes about fifty minutes starting at 11:30 in the morning. The choice of plays is brilliant because one-act plays are produced infrequently and opportunities for seeing these two again are probably non-existent. If I can borrow the words from the old tea commercial, the applicable phrase is “Only at the Shaw Festival, eh?”
Trifles by Susan Glaspell and A Wife for a Life by Eugene O’Neill run from May 29 to October 12, 2013 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.