The Theatre Guild has brought into town for a two week stand what is generally considered Lillian Hellman's greatest play. "The Autumn Garden" is beyond doubt Miss Hellman's masterpiece in her own peculiar genre of subtle characterization through complex interweaving of personalities; as good theatre, however, weaknesses in its very conception prevent it from even approaching "The Little Foxes" or "Watch on the Rhine."
There are ten principals in the play, nine of whom fall into two clear-cut categories, and all of whom are played off against each other in unlimited combinations and permutations. Needless to say, these character relationships and the development of Miss Hellman's philosophy through them take up the better part of the play's two and a half hours; one leaves the theatre with a distinct grasp of five or six rather extraordinary personalities and a vague impression that some sort of tenuous plot has been woven around them.
The scene of the drama is the deep South, and it too has been chosen to conform to Miss Hellman's philosophical preconceptions. Illusion and romance envelope the genteel Southern boardinghouse of the Tuckerman family, and the play becomes a study of the effect that tough-minded personalities have on these illusions. Florence Eldridge plays an insecure Southern belle, wound up in the intricacy of a false emotion, who sees in life only what she wants. She cannot believe that her disillusioned husband (perhaps too much her antithesis to be really credible) wishes to divorce her merely in order to commune with his own thoughts. Miss Eldridge's interpretation of the part, with her emphasis on the delicate superficialities of existence, is certainly the outstanding performance of the play.
Frederic March is introduced more as a foil and a cohesive force for the other players than for any contribution of his own towards the "appearance-reality" conflict. He plays a bluff, well-meaning fool, who, through no fault of his own, manages to compromise the only woman in the play whom he doesn't care for. The insignificant problem which he has created is magnified by the Romantic Contingent for their own ends, and at length disrupts the marriage plans of an innocent young couple.
As a psychological tour de force, "The Autumn Garden" is monumental. Even viewed in this light, however, it is two hours of rough going; there are just too many complex psychological relationships to allow more than a superficial idea of Miss Hellman's philosophy.