In its "English Season", director Geoffrey Sherman refers to the Octagon Theatre's Travels With My Aunt as a "companion piece" to The 39 Steps which is showing in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Carolyn Blount Theatre. -- The productions have several things in common: both are based on English novels; both are episodic narratives; both use the convention of four actors playing multiple roles; both have male actors impersonating female characters (a long and respected tradition in English theatre); both utilize on-stage props tables and moveable furniture to indicate changes of time and place; and both have central characters going on journeys of problem-solving and self-discovery.
While The 39 Steps is a fast-paced comic thriller, Giles Havergal's adaptation of Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt is a more leisurely exploration of an unconventional world wherein a meek recently retired bank manager whose sole outside interest is in growing dahlias in his garden meets his bohemian 70-something Aunt Augusta at his mother's funeral and, caught up in her mysterious lifestyle, travels with her to exotic and dangerous locales where he meets an assortment of her disreputable acquaintances & lovers past and present...and learns much about himself (and her) as well.
The popular culture references in The 39 Steps may be familiar to moviegoers; the allusions in Travels With My Aunt test the audience's knowledge of philosophy, art, and literature. -- This, and the fact that Mr. Sherman distributes the dialogue among all four actors who play the protagonist Henry Pulling, to demonstrate in each a specific facet of Henry's personality, making the audience experience both a diverting entertainment and an intellectual challenge.
The audience is challenged from the start when all four actors [Rodney Clark, Paul Hebron, James Bowen, and Timothy Carter] dressed in identical dark suits and bowler hats share Henry's first-person narrative of events leading up to the fateful meeting with Aunt Augusta. Soon, she expresses a need for a travel companion, and Henry is caught up in her sly implications that she has a lot to teach him and goes with her. All is not what it seems: his parentage is called into question, and Aunt Augusta's life-style choices demand explanation.
A true ensemble, these men shift from role to role with minimal change or adjustment of costume with apparent ease and fluidity -- and with distinct postures, gestures, and voices -- that make each character instantly clear. And, as they share the role of Henry with so many other personae, (only Mr. Clark plays Aunt Augusta) their talents come to the fore: regional, class, and national dialects are done convincingly; gender-switching is credible, with just a touch of "camp" at strategic moments; respectable and disreputable sorts are delineated with conviction -- the character list is so all encompassing. Not only that, but the actors also serve as "Foley artists", providing many of the sound effects (walking on a pebbled beach, pouring tea, etc. -- timed with the on-stage action) that are cleverly inserted into the production.
Greene's novel was written in the 1960s, and as he showed in other novels like The Quiet American, Brighton Rock, and The End of the Affair, he was much taken with the politics and morality of his time, taking an ambivalent attitude towards conventional ideologies while embracing new experiences with no sense of bigotry, and expressed most charmingly in the words of Aunt Augusta, to "never presume yours is the better morality".
So, while Aunt Augusta's forays into art smuggling, the occult, love affairs with various men, and her connections with Nazi sympathizers make Henry dubious about their relationship, her central credo is that love is what matters most -- it is her distinguishing feature, and we are inclined to forgive her other faults. This is her last opportunity to connect with her "nephew", and the love she bears him is more maternal than his "mother's" could have been. In Mr. Clark's capable hands, she is ever gracious, generous, optimistic, and trusting in mankind's better nature, and too polite to blurt out the truth...Henry must discover it for himself.
ASF newcomer Timothy Carter's resonant baritone and uncanny ability to embody characters as different as a gruff Det. Sgt. Sparrow and a coy teenage girl Yolanda, make him a welcome addition to the local theatre scene.
Returning actor James Bowen, playing several of Aunt Augusta's lovers and an assortment of male and female roles (especially the sensitive mourner Miss Patterson), transforms himself for each occasion.
And Paul Hebron's charismatic Henry as well as Henry's love interest Miss Keene, the flower-child Toolie & her CIA operative father O'Toole, and his ability to connect truthfully with Mr. Clark's effervescent Aunt Augusta, provide this chameleon-actor some of the production's finest moments. He does succumb to her influence, and seems to have found love by the end.
The so very many plot elements in this production belabor the point a bit and make it seem over-long, though never uninteresting. Henry is left at the end having to decide whether to stay with his Aunt or to go back home; though it is not completely resolved, much has been learned -- don't judge others, embrace life in the moment, be true to yourself...and love.