Hippo Manchester
October 13, 2005

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Theater: Lowell theater opens with a winner of a satire

Breadwinner the story of family and money, and the trouble the combination brings

By Michelle Saturley   msaturley@hippopress.com

Over-privileged, ungrateful offspring who can’t wait to inherit their family fortune — sound familiar? Well, it’s not 2005, and the greedy children in question aren’t the Hilton sisters. This is the beginning of W. Somerset Maugham’s play, The Breadwinner, written in 1930. Maugham, a novelist and dramatist, wrote more than 30 plays between 1897 and 1963, often with themes of social class and the struggles of mankind to make personal choices that didn’t always follow the norm. Both these themes are brilliantly explored in The Breadwinner.

The play opens with Patrick and Judy, brother and sister who are spending the holiday from their tony prep schools at home in the suburbs of London (or, as they call it, “the back woods.”) They are soon joined by their cousins, Diana and Timothy, also privileged brats who join in the bitch session about how they are in the prime of their lives and should not be financially dependent upon their parents — instead, their parents should just hand over the fortune now and let them spend it while they’re still young enough to enjoy themselves.

On the heels of this conversation (in which Patrick asserts that everyone should be euthanised upon turning 40, since their usefulness on the planet has run out), the children and their mother, Margery (who privately laments that her husband is a bore, but at least he brings home a hefty paycheck) learn through a family friend, Alfred, that patriarch Charles has come into some serious financial trouble.

At first, the family is in hysterics, thinking that their father has gone off somewhere to quietly commit suicide rather than face them with the fact that he is penniless. They seem to be more devastated at the thought of not vacationing on the Riviera this year than the idea of their father’s death.

After some investigation, Alfred discovers that Charles was able to procure a sizeable loan from a business partner, allowing him to cover his margin on the stock market and giving him the chance to earn another fortune. Everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief when in walks a calm and quiet Charles. He matter-of-factly reports that he didn’t cash the check given to him by the business partner, and has been “hammered” out of the stock exchange. To put it succinctly, he’s broke, out of a job and has no options. Which is exactly what he wants.

Charles announces, with little fanfare, that he is packing up a few belongings and leaving his wife and children for good. He will give them his remaining 15,000 pounds to live on, but he’s out of there. He’s tired of busting his posterior day in and day out, never taking a vacation, never developing his own interests, all for the cause of bringing home the bacon to a pack of ingrates who don’t even like him, never mind appreciate him.

Son Patrick is appalled. How can his father leave his wife and children? After all, his father’s life would be meaningless without the children, right?

Wrong, counters Charles. In fact, he finds his children tedious and his wife boring to the point of extinction. He says he was prepared to walk back into the stock exchange and take up his life again, but then he had an epiphany that it wasn’t worth it. So now, he’s going to chuck it all, and start over again.

The second act of the play centers more around each character’s reaction to Charles’ decision. His wife, Margery, claims to be heartbroken; she says she loves her husband deeply and can’t live without him. His best friend, Alfred, is certain there’s another woman at the root of the problem, while Alfred’s wife, Dorothy, is sure that Charles is madly in love with her and is giving her a signal that he wants her to chuck it all, too, and run away with him. Alfred and Dorothy’s daughter, Diana, confesses her secret crush on Charles and begs him to take her away with him. Charles dismisses all of them, intent on packing a few things and getting out.

Charles’ children have vastly different reactions to the news. While son Patrick copes by locking himself in his room, eating butterscotch and sulking, Judy has a heart-to-heart with her father, telling him that she understands why he’s making his decision and wishes him well. You see, Judy feels trapped by their station in life, too — doomed to a life of boring cocktail parties and being forced into marriage. She longs to be an actress, but knows that her mother and their friends would never approve. For the first time in their lives, father and daughter connect.

What is charming and thought-provoking about this comedy is that, even though it was written in 1930, so much of its subject matter seems to come from today’s society. It really made me stop and think about the way my husband and I work to provide our children with the things we never had, and they don’t seem all that impressed. I have read that this new generation is often called the “generation of entitlement,” but Maugham’s play demonstrates that every generation struggles with this.

The outstanding cast took on the talky script and made it down-to-earth and appealing. Their upper-class British accents were flawless, and each player was completely committed to his character. Jack Gilpin gives a classy, restrained performance as Charles, while Joe Delafield, who plays Patrick, simply oozes brattiness. Also notable is Virginia Kull, who plays daughter Judy with a charming mix of naiveté and quirkiness.

Overall, The Breadwinner is a delightful class study that was well worth the drive to Lowell, Mass. The show runs Wednesdays through Sundays until Oct. 30, so don’t miss it. For more information, go to www.merrimackrep.org.