At intermission my husband leaned over to me to say, “This could have been written today. And it would still be shocking.”
After all, The Constant Wife wasn’t penned recently; W. Somerset Maugham wrote the play in 1926, nearly a century ago. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) calls the play a “cheeky satire [that] overturns the expectations of relationships, fidelity and social roles that were just as relevant in the 1920s as they are today.” I often feel that sentiment is overused in theater — “Wow, themes from The Iliad are still so timely!” — but when it comes to The Constant Wife, I am in agreement. They play more than holds up.
As I fear I’m beginning to take for granted, DCPA’s production is pitch perfect. The Constant Wife is housed in DCPA’s Space Theater, a 400-person venue configured in-the-round. Following Zoey’s Perfect Wedding and Native Gardens, this was my third experience with the Space Theatre, and DCPA understands how to keep the staging fresh and lively. Director Shelley Butler has an eye for blocking in this challenging setup, keeping her cast of seven subtlely spinning around the stylish sitting room, continually cheating to each audience perspective. Takeshi Kata’s simple, pretty scenic design gets out of the way while still making space for stunning details. (I feel sorry for the side of the audience that could not see Constance apply a postage stamp to an envelope, using a darling little moistener.)
And then there is Butler’s cast, with no apparent weak links between them. Gretchen Egolf is ebullient as Constance Middleton, the constant wife herself. Constance is the heart of both the comedy and the drama in this play — she must be both poised and gritty, cunning and warm, with the perfect sidelong glance. Egolf not only lands it, but creates delightful moments when one forgets they’re watching any acting at all.
Constance deals with societal expectations from every conceivable angle. Speaking for the past is her pearl-clutching mother (an impeccable Carol Schultz), who wants her daughter to act the perfect, most permissive housewife. Pushing for Constance to be more progressive: her younger sister Martha (Julia Knitel, whose plucky verve struck me as terribly familiar — it turns out Knitel helmed Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on its tour through Cincinnati). Gretchen’s friend Barbara Fawcett (Miriam A. Laube) makes another play for progress, encouraging Constance to earn her own living — and, in doing so, possibly stomp on the last of her husband’s fragile masculinity.
That husband has a few ideas of his own regarding Constance. John is, by design, nearly forgettable in the first half of the play — a disengaged husband who keeps long hours with vague excuses. After intermission, however, we get to see some tremendous work from Robert Mammana as John learns that his wife is a force to be reckoned with (and how that may be a good thing).
I will admit, I spent much of the play waiting for the script to falter and reveal archaic, wince-worthy gender stereotypes. However, while those stereotypes are certainly addressed, they are typically the butt of the joke — so much so that both my husband and I wondered aloud and how the play might have initially been received. Maugham’s script reminded me a good deal of Oscar Wilde in its snark and quickness, and Constance is invited to deliver many of the best barbs herself. She has agency, she has an independent spirit, and she creates choices for herself when others see none.
Frankly I wish that in 2018, Constance’s struggles for autonomy felt more foreign, that The Constant Wife felt woefully out of date. No such luck, but at least we have a delightful play to escape into — and we can each leave with a little of Constance’s pep in our step.
Erica Reid is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.