Bedding Down

The central symbol of a long-lasting marriage in Jan de Hartog's bittersweet The Four Poster is the marriage bed itself. Sexual tension is important in this poignant comedy from the Nomad Players, but the real point is a couple's attempts to reach each other over 35 years. Well-written and charming, the play presents a terrific challenge to the two actors who alone must sustain the three acts it takes to tell the history of a marriage--a challenge they try very hard to meet but ultimately can't sustain.

As the story opens, it's 1890, and Michael carries his bride across the threshold of their bedroom. Still in her wedding dress, Agnes is a little tipsy from champagne, and he is drunk with love and joy. We learn he is a writer when she asks if he has composed a poem for their wedding. He has begun one, but he won't read it to her--we never learn why. Her feet hurt, so he gently, slowly removes one of her shoes, an act he would like to drag out all night. They are embarrassed. They are nervous. It's their first night and, after all, this is the late nineteenth century.

As she rushes out to dress in the bathroom, he takes off his clothes, then puts on his nightshirt, then puts his clothes back on. She emerges from the bathroom with her wedding dress over her nightgown. Easing into the sack is a matter of much delicacy and invention, but Michael is paralyzed, so it's up to Agnes to make the first move. This early scene establishes a pattern: Each partner will take his or her turn initiating intimacy (whether emotional or sexual) throughout the play.

A year later, during her first pregnancy, Agnes finds herself babying her husband when he suffers sympathetic labor pains. Turns out he's afraid of losing her to the child--and so he becomes a child himself. But ten years later, he wants to leave her for another woman because she doesn't appreciate his work--more babyish behavior that signals a midlife crisis come early.

Fifteen years later, it's time for Agnes's own midlife crisis. After her daughter's wedding, she tells Michael she doesn't love him anymore and wants to leave him. This time, Michael understands her better than she does herself--for once, he's the wiser of the two.

In the end, their children grown and gone, the two move out of their house into a more manageable apartment. As they pack up to leave, a few of the lifelong tensions surface again and are resolved again. Men are from Mars, women from Venus. Yet somehow they manage to meet in space through mutual respect and compassion.

Unfortunately, it's only in the last scene that this production really works. Sue Resseguie and Chet Martin are fine actors, but they're not believable as young marrieds or as thirtysomethings. The wigs and the fabulous costumes by Mary Ann Nitchie help some, and the snappy pace of Howard Bashinski's direction keep us involved in the story line. But it's simply too hard for such mature actors to carry youth. The last scene works so well because the actors can finally relax into their roles--as an older couple, they are believable at last.

Something important about the nature of marriage does manage to surface in The Four Poster--something about the struggle to grow close and to forgive one another for all the deadly domesticity and all the trespasses of ego. But in order for such a show to truly speak its piece, it requires powerful realism as well as plentiful wit.


The Four Poster, through January 25 at The Guild Theatre, 4840 Sterling Drive, Boulder, 443-7510.

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