The title of the 1917 play “Why Marry?” is, of course, a question. Another that might come to mind is this: How could characters from nearly 100 years ago possibly have anything relevant to say about marriage as an institution?
It turns out the answer is quite a lot, as we learn in Fresno City College’s studious and insightful production, which continues through Saturday.
Jesse Lynch Williams’ play, which won the very first Pulitzer Prize for drama, isn’t often revived these days. It doesn’t have the poetic richness or thundering humanity of a Eugene O’Neill, say, who won the Pulitzer in 1920 and 1922. There’s a formality to the language and a professorial approach to the theme — as if we’re in a classroom and we’ve just been told, “The subject is marriage, now discuss” — that makes it hard to bond emotionally with the material.
With classic plays, it’s common to look for universal truths about human relationships. (Shakespeare is often invoked as practically a marriage counselor.) But Williams makes clear in “Why Marry?” he wants to examine marriage in his own time. That means specifics, and lots of them. The play features a frank and well-rounded investigation into gender roles, religious issues, love vs. economics and — shockingly — asking whether marriage is a viable institution at all.
He uses two couples to make his points. In the household of a wealthy extended family, Jean (Krystal Brock) sets her sights on an even wealthier cad, Rex (Javier Padilla). She doesn’t really love him, but what else can she do? She’s 26 and relies on her oafish brother, John (Esau Mora) for support. A woman simply has to get married.
But Jean’s sister, the highly educated Helen (Mallory Scott), vehemently disagrees. She does love someone, the eminent doctor and scientist Ernest (Will Jorge). And he loves her in return. Both worry, however, that marriage will destroy their productive working relationship. (Ernest tells Helen, “You are a very exceptional woman. You have a mind like a man.”)
Director James Knudsen modernized the production by trimming it from three acts to two and excising some of the repetitive and archaic language. Even when it comes to such “in the past” themes as women’s suffrage and divorce, however, what remains doesn’t seem hoary or old-fashioned.
A buoyant production design helps counter the heft of the material. Christopher R. Boltz’s airy, semi-realistic set uses a pleasing palette of soft hues and striped, summery patterns to capture the sun-drenched character of a country-house terrace. Debbi Shapazian’s snazzy period costumes add to the mood.
Knudsen has a deft directing touch in terms of spatial relationships and use of the stage. I like when he brings five characters downstage en masse at a pivotal moment to pound a point.
In general terms, the overall acting is not as accomplished as in recent City College outings. There are some nice individual moments, from Scott’s quieter expressions of love and angst to Will Moles’ genial manipulations as a fussy older uncle. Mora and Tamara Veres-Vailant, who plays his put-upon wife, have a spark of baleful chemistry together in their big confrontation scene. Too often, however, the line readings are rushed, particularly when getting into the play’s finer intellectual points. Scott and Jorge, in particular, tend to speed through those points, making it seem as if they’re reciting than actually in a spontaneous moment.
While you might be tempted to consider the play purely a historical piece, questions about marriage are still more than relevant today. Some of the issues might be different — gay marriage comes to mind — but societal debate rages on. It’s easy to look back on the family in the play and think how quaint it is for people to be caught in the middle of a battle between marriage as purely a social/economic transaction and marriage purely for love.
But has that battle really been settled? And what does the divorce rate (11% at the time of the play, we’re told, and far higher today) say about marriage as an institution? It turns out that the questions asked by “Why Marry?” are tougher than you’d think.
Photo: Darlene Wendels