Skimming the Surface
Quartermaine¹s Terms simply refuses to come to life. In fact, from the current Germinal Stage production, I can't quite figure out what the play's supposed to be about. It seems like one of those gentle, wistful British comedies in which all the meaning lies beneath and around the actual lines, but there are some knockabout, almost farcical moments, too.
The play is set in a school in Cambridge where foreign students come to learn English. But while we hear about some of their exploits, we never see the students: The action all takes place in the staff room over a period of two years, during which the lives of seven teachers shift and change. Mark wants to be a novelist. He's so obsessed with his writing that at the beginning of the play, his wife has left him, taking their child with her. Eventually she will return. Anita's philandering husband edits a literary magazine and has asked to see Mark's work. When he does, he turns it down. Anita puts up with her husband's infidelities until she realizes she doesn't love the man. Another teacher, Henry, talks about his high-strung daughter; toward the play's end, we realize just how troubled she is. The youngest member of the staff, accident-prone Derek, struggles to survive on his tiny paycheck. Melanie takes care of a sick and angry mother. The school is run by a gay couple, Eddie and Thomas, although only Eddie appears on stage.
In the center of things is St. John Quartermaine, a politely smiling empty vessel. Quartermaine has been at the school for decades and long ago given up any attempt at actual teaching -- though there is an ex-student who periodically sends him grateful, poorly written letters. Unfortunately, Quartermaine can't quite remember who this boy is. Still, in their cozy, paternalistic way, Eddie and Thomas have kept the teacher on, year after year. As played by Chuck Wigginton, Quartermaine reminds me of the Milton Waddams character in the cult film Office Space, who went mad when his red stapler was taken from him. At other times, he's more like Chance, the gardener in Being There, whose empty-headedness was universally mistaken for wisdom.
These people are all dusty and rather genteel. They socialize together periodically, but never really see or hear each other. No one can be bothered to get Derek's name right, for example. Almost none of the people on stage feels like a real human being. The actors mock and display their characters rather than inhabiting them. Fred Lewis does best as the precise and gentlemanly Henry. Wigginton, too, provides several moments of humor with his slow, puzzled double takes.
There's a certain yearning beneath the vacuousness of these characters' lives. Henry tries several times to describe to the others a transcendent moment he experienced one morning on holiday, but is always interrupted. The symbolism of a swan with its powerful, beating wings surfaces once or twice -- then is deliberately reduced to absurdity when some of Melanie's students, inspired by her description of medieval banquets, attempt to capture, kill and roast one.
This play may be all about subtext, but at Germinal there seems to be nothing going on beneath the surface.
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