When in 1984 Prince Charles referred to the plans for a new wing of the National Gallery in London as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend", those blueprints were scrapped and a controversy arose about whether modern architecture's rectangular, sharp-edged, and utilitarian forms had a place amidst the elegant spires that had dominated the cityscape for so long.
A few years later, but with Prince Charles's words still ringing, Peter Shaffer penned "Lettice and Lovage" (1987), wherein two very stubborn "ladies of a certain age" and from separate social and political camps join forces against the concrete, steel, and glass monstrosities that litter the landscape. Even the three act structure of his play suggests an admiration for old-fashioned storytelling that is deftly directed by John Going.
Currently in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's repertory, Act I begins with a rather tedious and formulaic monologue by a tour guide at "the dullest house in England", a Tudor edifice aptly called Fustian House. Lettice Douffet [Diana VanFossen], a free-spirited Bohemian, embellishes the "official script" so well in successive renditions that the tourists are enthralled and the bowl containing their "tokens of admiration" overflows. Her mantra -- "enlarge, enlighten, enliven" -- makes her descriptions exciting and entertaining, though the veracity of her "details" ( or "gross departures from the truth") is challenged by one visitor and then by Lotte Schoen [Carole Monferdini], a stiffly officious representative of the "Preservation Trust" that manages historic properties.
Lettice has an encyclopedic knowledge of history and an understanding that "language frees one" from the ordinary -- what she calls the "mere". She bemoans what the country has come to -- that people have no spunk and settle for the "mere" in every aspect of their lives -- and her compulsion for storytelling, influenced by her mother's theatrical tutelage, "turns history into legend", captivates any listening audience, and is the key to her characterization. -- The actress playing the role must be an exceptional storyteller, and Ms. VanFossen, blessed with Shaffer's brilliant script, not only presents a larger-than-life portrait of Lettice with all the melodramatic justifications of her behavior, but rises to an inspired portrayal.
ASF intern Melanie Wilson plays Miss Schoen's secretary, Miss Farmer, as a bubbly yet somewhat dim-witted young woman totally out of place in her job, but eager to please. Her vivacious presence serves well to counterbalance Miss Schoen's propriety.
And, Lettice's on-stage audience is primarily Miss Schoen. In this role, Ms. Monferdini's severely cropped hair, plain grey suit, and sensible shoes are matched by a rigid insistence on following protocol; to watch her gradually falling under Lettice's irresistable spell is a delight. Her facial and posture changes in Act II are so subtle -- outrage changes to indignance and then to frustration and compassion to capitulation -- until, prompted by over-imbibing Lettice's "quaff" (an "adapted" ancient recipe of mead, vodka, sugar, and lovage [parsley]), she divulges a secret explosive past life with a revolutionary group called "E.N.D." (the "Eyesore Negation Detatchment"), and becomes an ally. The transformation is complete.
There is more to come, however, in Act III. The women have been re-enacting some major violent historical events in Lettice's flat, the deaths of Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I among them, with theatrical costumes and props and Lettice's enlarged vocabulary and passionate performances. An accident threatens a lawsuit for attempted murder. As Lettice's defense lawyer, Mr. Bardolph, Anthony Cochrane is also caught in her spell, and his transformation replicates Miss Schoen's in a wonderfully comic turn that is infectious.
Shaffer re-wrote the ending to his play that had the central characters embarking on a plot to blow up the offending buildings to a less incendiary though still malicious plan -- a prudent choice in light of world terrorism, and perhaps a wise choice in that the issue of modern architecture's intrusion against the grand designs of the past has little relevance here today.
But a happy ending is de rigueur: the lawsuit is dropped and as we have been transported by their performances, we join these two exceptional women in their triumph.