A story of class and ethics plus romance

Howard’s End

Cast of Howard's End, a Remy Bumppo production at Theater Wit
Cast of Howard’s End, a Remy Bumppo production at Theater Wit

4 stars

 

E.M. Forster’s 1910 literary classic is a sprawling novel about rank, morals and love among three English families from different social classes

His novel offered an insightful portrait of England at the height of its imperial world influence just prior to World War I. Through the lives of three diverse families, he showed how fast progress was happening and shaping Edwardian England.

In light of the sweeping changes taking place, Forster seemed to ask who would eventually inherit England? Which class would ultimately define this powerful nation?

Through this tale, we come to know the wealthy, capitalist Wilcox dynasty, the idealistic, intellectual upper middle class Schlegel sisters and the ever struggling, financially impoverished lower class Leonard and Jacky Bast.

Douglas Post’s faithful theatrical adaptation is truly eloquent and makes E.M. Forster’s novel accessible in a two-and-a-half hour production. This is a beautiful, carefully constructed play commissioned by Remy Bumppo Theatre, and currently enjoying its world premiere at Theater Wit.

The script, brought to life through Nick Sandys’ intelligent and clever direction, is sure to become the definitive stage treatment of Forster’s novel.

The story opens at the graveside of the late, beloved wife, mother and friend, Ruth Wilcox. Her family returns to the drawing room to reflect upon her life and learn who will receive her personal effects in her will.

To everyone’s surprise, Ruth’s country estate, Howard’s End, has been left to her dear friend, Margaret Schlegel. Because the endowment was scribbled in pencil on a scrap of paper, the family chooses not to inform Margaret and her younger sister Helen of their inheritance.

Widower Henry Wilcox eventually decides to pay the Schlegel sisters a visit at their London flat, a home he learns will soon be razed in the mass gentrification of the district. Keeping Howard’s End a secret, Henry offers to help the ladies find a new residence.

Fate has led the Schlegel sisters to know Leonard Bast, a lower class worker, who’s barely making ends meet. When Wilcox shares a rumor about the company where Leonard works, the Schlegel sisters try to persuade Bast to leave his current employment and find a better, more secure job.

This advice backfires and Leonard finds himself out of work and without a roof over his head. He and his flirtatious, common law wife Jacky, become two more of London’s unemployed, homeless population.

The plot grows more complicated when, despite being philosophical opposites, Henry Wilcox falls in love with Margaret Schlegel. He proposes marriage to his wife’s friend and she accepts.

But when the Basts unexpectedly show up at Evie Wilcox’s wedding reception, and Henry recognizes Jacky Bast as his former mistress, his relationship with Margaret abruptly changes

Like an Edwardian soap opera, the story spins forward bringing more surprising developments and complications. By the end, it’s clear who E.M. Forster predicts will inherit England.

By using Howard’s End as a symbol for his homeland, and the intermingling of the Wilcox, Schlegel and Bast families at the country estate as a metaphor for how the English classes were merging, we understand how the author viewed Britain’s trajectory.

The cast is terrific. The talented, always captivating Eliza Stoughton once again mesmerizes, this time as Margaret Schlegel. She commands the stage as the story’s protagonist, a woman who embodies the idealistic and intellectual qualities of the upper middle class.

As wealthy businessman Henry Wilcox, Mark Ulrich makes his auspicious debut with this company. Not without charm, he plays his role with the necessary class, stuffy conventionalism and unbridled chauvinism found in the upper classes at the turn of the century.

Heather Chrisler is appropriately passionate, feisty and scrappy as Helen Schlegel. Her passion for art, literature and social change, along with an obsession to help those less fortunate, makes the younger Schlegel sister an especially likable character.

Terry Bell is excellent as the downtrodden Leonard Bast. Continually trying to improve himself, Leonard is a reader and shares the Schlegel sisters’ ideology. Jodi Kingsley ably portrays flirtatious Jacky Bast, looking like an Edwardian chandelier in Kristy Leigh Hall’s heavily-embellished costume.

The other Wilcox family members are each played with individuality and style. As Charles Wilcox, Michael McKeogh is every bit his father’s son, self-centered, pompous and obsessed with material goods. Emily Tate supplies most of the play’s humor as Charles’  dim-witted, scatterbrained, money-hungry wife, Dolly.

Tommy Malouf, is properly starched and a bit mysterious as younger brother Paul Wilcox. He’s returned from making his fortune in Nigeria, but there’s an air of something unspoken about his affairs there.

The play’s technical achievements are breathtaking. Although Howard’s End jumps quickly between a number of houses, flats and landscapes in and around London, it spans the years of 1908 through 1910.

But scenic designer Yeaji Kim has helped solve the staging problems. She’s created a sparsely furnished, English drawing room box set. Nick Sandys’ creatively-choreographed rearrangement of a few furnishings, performed by his cast, allows the stage to transform instantly into multiple locales.

To complete the effect, Kim covers the floor of her set with both hardwood and grass. She also embellishes her scenic design with an array of ever-changing projections of period paintings and motion pictures that set each scene and complement Sandys’ blocking.

Mike Durst’s evocative lighting design enhances the impact of Kim’s scenic work and the sumptuous Edwardian costuming by Kristy Leigh Hall completes the look and feel of this period piece with color and texture.

Remy Bumppo opens its new season with Douglas Post’s splendid adaptation of E.M. Forster’s classic novel presented in a polished, finely detailed production that’s become the hallmark of this company. It features an impeccable cast and is ably supported by an army of gifted, unseen theatre artists who flawlessly add their talents to help bring life to this drama of class, ethics and romance.

DETAILS:”Howard’s End” is a Remy Bumppo Theatre production at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, through Oct. 5, 2019. Running time: 2 hrs, 30 min. For tickets and other information call (773) 975-8150 or visit Remy Bumppo.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

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