We have no doubt that in 1926 when The Constant Wife made its stage debut in Loudinville, Ohio and during its 295 performance run in New York from 1926 to 1927, the themes of infidelity and women’s liberation would have created as much of stir then as today’s graphic language, sex and violence on stage and screen. And indeed, viewed through today’s eyes we could not begin to imagine what all the fuss a show like this would have created in the 1920s.
But despite what would have caused as much uproar in 1926 as Britney’s exposed privates did in 2008, The Constant Wife still has some ring of truth. Perhaps it is in our knowing realization that a women’s lot is not as progressed as we would like to think and the manner in which Constance Middleton (Nicole Underhay) deals with her husband’s sordid affair is as deliciously funny and ordinary now as would have been wickedly funny and subversive some eighty years ago.
Celine Stubel and Nicole Underhay in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of The Constant Wife. Photo by David Cooper.
Seems everyone in Constance’s life knows about her husband’s philandering with her best friend, Marie-Louise Durham (Celine Stubel). Or so they think. While Constance’s mother (Bridget O’Sullivan) tries to keep her other daughter Martha (Moya O’Connell) from spilling the beans about John Middelton’s (Ted Cole) affair, Constance stuns them all by acknowledging that she has knows full well that her husband has been carrying on with her best friend and has in fact known about it for quite some time.
Next up we find Marie-Louise’s husband Mortimer (Mark Burgess playing double duty here as both the suspicious husband and the Middleton’s butler) confronting his wife and John after discovering what he thinks is John’s cigarette case under Marie-Louise’s pillow. But just as she stunned her mother and sister with the news that she knows of the affair, Constance covers for Marie-Louise and John with an elaborate story about the cigarette case being hers.
Constance’s rather “civilized” approach to her husband’s infidelity is met with both gratitude and astonishment by John but he is less-than-thrilled to find out that the real reason for her indifference is that while she still enjoys being with him she had, as early as five years into their fifteen year marriage, simply fallen out of love with him.
There was much debate among the small group of us that attended the show as to what would happen in Act Three and without wanting to spoil all the surprises suffice to say revenge can be sweet.
Nicole Underhay as Constance is a pure delight with just the right amount of faked naivety at the outset and the perfect amount of Machiavellian charm as she turns the tables on her wandering husband.
Nancy Bryant’s costumes, especially for the women, are perfect, not only as pure costumes but as a counterbalance to the less-than-perfect lives on stage. Ken MacDonald’s white art deco set design not only allows these wonderful costumes to pop but works nicely with the colorful antics of the characters as well.
Executing a play with the sensibilities of a different time can sometimes be a risk. How will an a modern audience react to the mores of so long ago? Will it still have any relevance for today? Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective I guess, Director Panych could just as easily have placed these characters in 2009 and it would still have some truth about it.