WILLIAMSTOWN -- Lillian Hellman's "The Autumn Garden" is the kind of drawing-room drama that ought to creak with old age. In the Williamstown Theatre Festival's perfectly cast and superbly staged rendition, however, it spins along nimbly, prompting the question, "Where has it been all these years?"
We're all familiar with the standard Hellman canon ("Little Foxes," etc.), so it's perplexing how this work -- which she professed to be her favorite -- has languished so long in the shadows. After a two-month run in 1951 (featuring Fredric March, Jane Wyatt, and a young James Lipton making his Broadway debut), it all but vanished from view -- occluded, perhaps, by a summons from the House Un-American Activities Committee.
When Hellman wrote this study of a fading, once-grand boarding house on the Louisiana coast (the label "Chekhovian" is inescapable), she was in her mid-40s, the age of proprietress Constance Tuckerman (Allison Janney), so she would have had some working knowledge of the middle-age rue that afflicts the gathered company.
Constance has a warm relationship with regular summer visitor Ned Crossman (Rufus Collins). The friendship has never flamed into passion, partly because Constance is still mourning the lost love of her youth -- dashing painter Nick Denery (John Benjamin Hickey), due to arrive this very evening -- and partly because Ned is committed to a numbing routine involving massive nightly influxes of alcohol. (It's as if Hellman had divided the persona of her beloved, Dashiell Hammett, neatly in twain.)
When we meet the genteel boarders, they're taking postprandial coffee in the parlor. (Thomas Lynch's realistic, yet ethereal set, with walls as diaphanous as moth wings, suggests a world in danger of disappearing.) The boarders are contemplating a party next door. Rose Griggs (Maryann Plunkett) is insistent on going, even if her husband, General Benjamin Griggs (Brian Kerwin), refuses. She's the kind of matron who imagines herself still an ingenue, and Plunkett makes her desperate, tippytoed gaiety a thing of delight and heartbreak.
Rounding out the party are a wasp-tongued grandmother, Mrs. Mary Ellis (delicious Elizabeth Franz); her outwardly commanding, but covertly needy daughter Carrie (Cynthia Mace, sporting the most stylish of Ilona Somogyi's spot-on period costumes); and Carrie's barely-adult son, Frederick (Eric Murdoch), freshly affianced to Constance's niece Sophie (Mamie Gummer), whom she rescued from postwar France. (If there is the slightest fault to be found with this production, it's Gummer's overdone French accent, which also affects her audibility: The girl, we're told, has been in residence for five years and surely would have acclimated more.)
The marriage plans are a puzzle to all concerned, particularly because Frederick has an unseen, scandal-trailing ami particulier in tow. However, Sophie -- homesick and eager to escape this backwater -- seems game for what is likely to prove a gainful mariage blanc. The two youngsters promise to be "kind" to each other.
Duty is the only thread holding the Griggses' marriage together, and the general, after a life of what now seems to him a series of wrong turns (career, spouse, even offspring) wants out. The other marriage under Hellman's microscope is that of Nick and his contemptuous yet codependent wife, Nina (Jessica Hecht brings out every subtle shading of this conflicted character).
Throughout the night and into the morning, the boarders come and go, caroming off one another like billiard balls, with each encounter sparking small revelations. You might think that the series of exchanges would grow tedious -- especially as they extend to three hours -- but so skillful is Hellman's exposition (it scarcely deserves the term), and so insightful her take on the crossroads presented by midlife, that the time speeds by.
The frequent splashes of humor help (Hellman freshens that glass continually), as does David Jones's deft direction, and Janney's generous diffusion of her star wattage in the interest of a balanced ensemble. With this long-neglected portrait of a way of life on the wane, Hellman created a memento of enduring value.