By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Great plays can emerge from numerous sources, so adapting a prestigious made-for-television movie from the ’70s for the stage makes perfect sense.
“Love Among the Ruins,” broadcast by ABC in 1975, captured a Peabody award and won multiple Emmys, including acting awards for stars Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier.
Laguna Playhouse, working with Papazian Hirsch Entertainment, co-created and is co-producing the movie’s stage version. James G. Hirsch and Robert A. Papazian adapted James Costigan’s original teleplay, and Michael Arabian is directing the world premiere production.
TV and film stars JoBeth Williams and Peter Strauss step into the Hepburn and Olivier roles. The show might not be considered “great,” but it’s a charming, polished light comedy with enough touches of romance to make us warm to its characters.
The focus is still the intersection of London’s theater and legal worlds, with events moved from 1911 to 1934.
The story opens when Sir George Druise (Martin Kildare) asks Sir Arthur Granville-Jones (Strauss) to defend Jessica Medlicott (Williams) against a lawsuit.
Once a famed actress of the London theater, Jessica, now in her seventies, has been accused of meeting, courting, promising marriage to and then jilting and abandoning her much-younger suitor, Alfred Pratt (CJ Blaine Eldred). Now he wants £50,000 in damages for breach of promise.
Considered “the finest and single greatest barrister in the realm,” Sir Arthur agrees to defend Jessica as long as she agrees to being 100 percent honest with him about the case’s details.
Naturally, there’s a snag. We quickly learn that Sir Arthur has something in common with plaintiff Pratt: While a law student in Toronto in 1894, he saw Jessica in a touring production of “The Merchant of Venice.”
Star-struck, he asked her to dinner. They wound up in a romance she ended when the tour moved on. Despite his fame and success, Sir Arthur has never recovered from this blow to his heart.
After this reveal, the play carefully depicts the relationship between two ex-lovers now in their twilight years while asking whether Sir Arthur can provide the legal defense Jessica needs without allowing his feelings to affect his professionalism. While Sir Arthur’s personal story edges toward the dramatic, the script is generally lightly humorous in tone and style.
Act One covers the pre-trial events, with Act Two unfolding in the courtroom. Presided over by a most proper judge (Tom Shelton), the heavily publicized proceedings are shown to be proper in the extreme – and though we can guess the outcome, neither side has an edge until Sir Arthur belatedly crafts a strategy to save Jessica.
The closing scenes show that what great legal figures like Sir Arthur do in their work requires as much skill in creating a performance as anything done by thespians like Jessica. Only after the trial do Sir Arthur and Jessica put all their cards on the table as each reveals truths hidden away for 40 years.
The story itself is of less import than the characters, its themes revolving around societal double standards for gents and ladies and attitudes toward romances between young men and older women. The script also delves into the concepts of people wearing masks and playing roles outwardly while shielding their true selves from the world.
A line of dialogue late in the play requesting that “ruined love” grow “bold anew” and become “stronger and greater” is the source of the play’s title. What happens to Sir Arthur and Jessica is of less import than who they are, and what they’ve become since they were young adults.
Laguna Playhouse’s production is just what you’d expect. Williams and Strauss provide charisma and star power in a grand, crisp and handsome staging that brims with British charm. With the aid of dialect coach Joel Goldes, Arabian’s engaging cast delivers crisp British accents, which creates a lovely feeling of ’30s London culture for the show.
Strauss’ Sir Arthur is stern, starchly proper, and self-righteously moralistic, his voice carrying echoes of Peter O’Toole and his portrayal shaded with the persona of the great Olivier.
While the celebrated barrister often melts under Jessica’s radiant charisma, his feelings toward her run the gamut from exasperation and rage to touching affection toward her and recollections of their brief romance (shown in flashbacks), all tinged with melancholic regret. Deepening his sense of sadness is the fact that he sees the various ironies in the way his relationship with Jessica has seemingly come full circle.
Williams’ Jessica is a beautiful, elegant grande dame who now shuns the spotlight, wanting only “serenity” and an “uneventful” life. Williams avoids evoking Hepburn, putting her own spin on the role. Only in the latter scenes do some of her line readings suggest the legendary movie star, as Jessica chafes at the indignities heaped upon her by Sir Arthur during the trial.
Tyee Tilghman paints Pratt’s barrister, Sir John Divine, as markedly less severe than the older, stodgier Sir Arthur. Savvy, polished and ultra-confident, his clear diction and persona project an impressive sense of professional authority.
Eldred portrays plaintiff Pratt as an upright Naval officer so dashing in his gleaming uniform he’s able to skirt being seen as an opportunistic young wolf, while Wendy Worthington uses the Cockney dialect and mannerisms of Pratt’s mom to inject her scenes with humor.
David Kay Mickelson’s costuming work helps define the social status of the various characters – yet, like the script, it doesn’t necessarily clue us in as to the story’s historical era.
Stephen Gifford’s scenic work creates the play’s various settings – Sir Arthur’s offices, the gardens of Jessica’s luxurious estate, and a courtroom in the Old Bailey courthouse. They’re given a leg up by projection designer Brian Gale’s color and black-and-white images of the great city of London.
Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through November 13. Running time (including intermission): Two hours. Tickets: $56 to $81. Tickets/information: 949-497-2787, www.lagunaplayhouse.org.