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The Right Pace for Case From Yesterday

'The Winslow Boy's' director Darlene Hunter-Chaffee finds the rhythm of Terence Rattigan's play in a staging that illuminates and leaves opaque the words.

February 12, 2001|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Terence Rattigan's "The Winslow Boy" concerns itself with a true story, about a 13-year-old student at a British maritime school who was accused of stealing a postal money order, forging the recipient's name and cashing the small amount. He didn't do it. It was, however, the beginning of a volatile case to test the British judicial system in the years just prior to World War I.

Although Rattigan's play, running at the Newport Theatre Arts Center in Newport Beach, is not great drama and never was, it is a theatrically poignant story in its attention to the family pressures brought about by the case, and the dedication of not only the boy's father, but the advocate who guided the case through the courts and the House of Commons to a final vindication of the boy.

Today, the play's value lies in its statements, and its effect depends on the honesty and realism of its direction and company. In the center's production, some of the performances fall far short of illuminating Rattigan's writing. Others bring it to life.

Darlene Hunter-Chaffee's direction is on the button throughout, with special attention to particular moments and their telling rhythms, and to the general tempo that gives Rattigan's words the space and depth they need.

Some of her casting is also on the nose. Jack Messenger's father, Arthur Winslow, is an incisive portrait of a man of moderate means who will forfeit comforts for his family, a dowry for his daughter, a college education for his older son, for the slight chance of proving a military establishment wrong. His declining health is unobtrusively played out in Messenger's performance, to great effect, and his nervous glances at his family and others involved is subtly indicative of his dedication to proving his son right.

His daughter, bouncing from fiance to fiance throughout the events, is nicely drawn, as a young woman dedicated to higher principles at the expense of her own comfort, by Laurel Gregory. Colin Kramer, as the older brother, Dickie, is a bit too willowy for the wild boy he should be but has enough pizazz to create the right balance in the script.

As Ronnie Winslow, the boy who caused the ruckus and then let everyone else suffer through its traumas, Jonathan Polimeni is a bit too reserved, even in the early guilt-ridden moments, but his later lack of concern is just right.

His mother, Grace Winslow, is played in an ill-fitting wig by Ellen Daphne Walcutt, who rarely achieves the tone or attitude of a British county wife. Greg Stich, although a little bland, has some good moments as the daughter's ambitious fiance. Jennifer Boudreau's overbearing parlor maid, Violet, is also right in her acting choices, if a little overpowering for her position in the play's balance.

Graham Barnard is the advocate who pushes Ronnie's case through the chambers of British justice, and is properly stolid, but is also gentle enough to make the final curtain's embrace with daughter Catherine believable. Therese Galien, as a female reporter, has a charming moment ignoring the Winslow case entirely in favor of gathering information about their draperies.

The family solicitor, Desmond Curry, is played by John R. Townsend as if he would rather be doing anything else than being on stage in this production.

SHOW TIMES

"The Winslow Boy," Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Through Feb. 25. $13. (949) 631-0288. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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