Visiting Ten Chimneys, the Wisconsin summer estate of American stage legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, is like taking a step back into a more sophisticated time.
The Genesee Depot home bursts with mementos of their long dual careers, when they starred in the then-scandalous “Design for Living” – Noel Coward’s ménage a trois comedy rumored to be based on the real state of affairs among the trio. (Lunt and Fontanne did only one film together – Lynn explained their reluctance to “go Hollywood” with “We can be bought, but we can’t be bored.”)
This golden age of American theater comes to (mostly) sparkling life in Jeffrey Hatcher’s comedy, receiving its local premiere at Northlight under BJ Jones’ thoughtful direction. And though not everything in the script adds up, it’s still a loving portrait of a couple who changed the rules and raised the stakes for stagecraft. (In one cunning interlude, we get a demonstration of how Lunt and Fontanne perfected their trademark naturalistic overlapping dialogue which still allowed every word of the script to be heard.)
The central conceit of Hatcher’s play, inspired by a trip to and tour of Genesee Depot, is that Alfred and Lynn’s relationship – professional and personal – is threatened by the arrival at Ten Chimneys of young Uta Hagen, cast as Nina in their upcoming production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” As the 1938-era story unfolds, elements of Chekhov’s tale (a young actress smitten with an older artist) start to bleed into their real lives.
This isn’t wholly convincing – in part because Sara Griffin’s Uta seems too sturdy and sensible to play the delicate Nina. But when the show gets away from the artificial constraints of the framing device, it sings.
Lia Mortensen is simply delicious as the zestful but slightly-vindictive Lynn, especially in her territorial squabbles with Alfred’s overbearing mother, Hattie (Linda Kimbrough), who lives in a remodeled hen house on the grounds. Janet Ulrich Brooks and Lance Baker as Louise and Carl, the down-to-earth siblings of V. Craig Heidenreich’s domineering Alfred, provide poignant portraits of what it’s like to always be stagehands in somebody else’s personal drama. And Steve Pringle’s Sydney Greenstreet, who harbors his own personal tragedy, fills out the classic “fat man” role with shades of sorrowful awareness.
Those who get the theatrical in-jokes (Brooks’ Louise describes Chekhov’s plot as “musical chairs, played really slow”) will probably best appreciate “Ten Chimneys,” but as a valentine to a vanished era, Hatcher’s play holds many charms for a wider audience.
“Ten Chimneys” at Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, runs through April 15. Tickets are $25-$60 and available at 847-673-6300 or www.northlight.org.