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The Cat’s Meow

Grand dames: (l-r) Packer and Prusha in Lettice and Lovage.

By James Yeara

Lettice and Lovage
By Peter Schaffer, directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Spring Lawn Theatre, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Dec. 14

Peter Schaffer’s three Tony Award-winning plays feature grand themes, grandly thinking main characters, and grand humor. Equus, Amadeus, and Lettice and Lovage all center on quirky characters who use language grandly in pursuit of the grand themes in life—with frequent laughter that bursts from the stage to puncture the grandiosity.

Shakespeare & Company’s version of Lettice and Lovage is a grand example of Schaffer’s grandness. This production uses the grandeur of its theatre, its nearby grand lobby (with its grand, wood-paneled and balustraded winding staircase) and the grandeur of Shakespeare & Company’s founder and artistic director Tina Packer to, in the words of protagonist Lettice Douffet, “enlarge, enliven, and enlighten” the audience. Maggie Smith won a Tony Award as Lettice Douffet in the 1990 production on Broadway, but it is impossible (even in this region, which has seen frequent productions of Lettice and Lovage) to imagine a more grand woman in the title role than Tina Packer.

With a presence that makes you long for her to assay some of the male Shakespearean roles Lettice liberally alludes to in the play (if Pat Carroll can play Falstaff, then Tina Packer certainly can), Packer caresses her consonants and embraces her vowels in grand displays of the stately art of articulation and attraction. Her performance has the intimacy of the drawing room, visually, and the grandness of the concert hall, vocally. You wish that you could just lie back and enjoy the aural feast Packer, with the cunning of a master chef, has prepared for you.

That is no mean feat: For, at three and a half hours including two intermissions, this is a Lettice and Lovage that does not stint. You will need a lot of room for this banquet of words.

The play focuses on soon-to-be-erstwhile English tour guide Lettice Douffet (Packer), whose ever-more inventive stories about Fustian House, “the most boring house in all England,” tickle the palate as they outrage her employers. Director Eleanor Holdridge stages the opening scenes on the grand staircase outside the Spring Lawn Theatre, with the audience acting as tourists would on a tour. It’s the sort of special staging that Shakespeare & Company, with its sprawling acreage, should exploit more often. As the play squeezes into the narrower confines of Spring Lawn’s 101-seat house, the confrontation and the subsequent communions between Lettice and her soon-to-be quondam boss, the dowdy Lotte Schoen (Diane Prusha, who creates the perfect foil for Packer’s expansive emoting Lettice), unfold.

And the unfolding is like one delicate, ever-more sumptuous course after another—until you are ready to burst. The richness of the play is topped only by the richness of the performances, which seem like several tempting desserts. After-dinner mints are furnished by Catherine Taylor-Williams as Schoen’s prissy secretary and Andrew Borthwick-Leslie as a particularly, and fastidiously, comic defense lawyer whose miming of a drumroll is not to be missed. Topping even this august assembly, however, is Isis the cat (Packer’s own pet) who, as Lettice’s cat, torments Schoen. Isis’ thick gray fur shone under the lights and her large green eyes entranced during her brief but memorable moment at the beginning of Act II. Never has a cat “meowrred” in so dulcet and guttural tones on a local stage. Not letting a cat upstage you is the sort of theatrical excess only Shakespeare & Company could pull off.

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