LOWELL — Britons struggling against their native emotional repression will no doubt remain a popular topic for drama as long as PBS draws breath. The trick is making their struggles matter — dramatizing stakes often expressed only in a bit lip or a stifled sob of regret.
Jill Tanner gives a terrific performance as Edith Taylor, the stifled Brit at the heart of Ronald Harwood’s “Equally Divided,” in a Merrimack Repertory Theatre production running through March 9 under the direction of Charles Towers. But it’s an uphill struggle in an odd little play.
Edith has sacrificed her life to taking care of her mother, a nasty piece of work who has finally passed away. Now Edith focuses on her inheritance, which she must rely on to sustain her for the rest of her expected lonely life.
Actresses like Nancy Marchand and Frances Conroy come to mind as Tanner balances Edith’s imperious rectitude with the sorrow showing through from underneath. She’s most potent when simply sitting and sighing with regret.
Kudos to set designer Bill Clarke for creating a home for Edith that’s dreary and claustrophobic, laden with vases, teapots, and furniture collected by her Mum. The fogbound dwelling was built from former railway carriages, apparently common on England’s south coast. But one look and anyone of healthy emotional makeup wants an express ticket out of there.
Unfortunately, the other three characters seem like stock figures out of some murder-mystery weekend.
Felicity La Fortune plays Renata Taylor, Edith’s estranged sister. From the instant she enters, we know Renata is the irresponsible one, the required counterweight to dutiful Edith. She drinks and smokes, and Edith coughs and opens a window. Edith hasn’t cried for their mother; Renata, who hardly ever visited Mum, cries buckets. We’ve seen this character countless times. Renata can claim two or three marriages, a house in France, and a shrink, but she still wants her half of the inheritance.
Will Lyman — spot-on as always — is Charles Mowbray, Edith’s recently widowed, rather befuddled solicitor. It’s a different, comic sort of role for the normally imposing Lyman. (Overhead at intermission: “Usually he’s so dashing; I’ve never seen him doddering.”) Of course Charles is supposed to fall for Edith but becomes enraptured by Renata instead.
Anthony Newfield slithers onto the scene as Fabian Hill, the slightly shady antiques dealer (he would say that’s redundant) asked to give a second opinion on Mum’s bric-a-brac. When all that junk turns out to be quite valuable, Fabian suggests Edith compromise her principles to get what’s rightfully hers.
La Fortune and Newfield seem to have a hard time finding the right pitch. Renata is more caricature than character. Fabian is a failed actor, so maybe that’s why Newfield shouts many of his lines. But it’s possible that the actors and Towers, Merrimack’s artistic director, are simply struggling with the play.
Harwood wrote “The Dresser” for stage and screen and adapted “The Pianist” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” for the movies, so he’s no slouch. But “Equally Divided” has so many tired tropes and odd changes of tone that it appears he tossed it off in an afternoon and never revised.
The play opens with Edith, alone in the house, explaining the whole setup over the telephone to a friend, which seems the laziest sort of writing. From then on, Harwood alternates dark, poignant glimpses into Edith’s heart with broad zingers that wouldn’t seem out of place in a “Carry On” comedy. When one character wishes aloud to return to the womb, another mutters something about a “tight fit.” Many such jokes got laughs at Sunday’s matinee, but it’s an uneasy mix, each tone undercutting the other.
There are foreshadowings of plot complications that never develop. The minor suspense that arises around a missing will simply evaporates. After one big, sisterly shouting match, Renata decamps for London. Fabian’s intentions (and sexuality) are hinted at but never made clear.
Tanner is quite potent as Edith, but the actress, like the character, doesn’t get a fair shake from “Equally Divided.”