When stars were stellar at grand gestures

Pewter Plough Playhouse

By Joan Crowder

The strong cast of "The Grand Manner" at the Pewter Plough Playhouse recreates an era when stage actors were the celebs of the day. A.R. Gurney's play, directed by Gene Strohl, is about turning points. It focuses on a turning point in the illustrious career of Katharine Cornell, known in the 1930s and '40s as the first lady of the American stage.

For playwright Gurney, who created the scenario based on a brief meeting with Cornell when he was a young man, it marks the pivotal moment that he knew he wanted to write plays. But on a broader scale, the story is set at a turning point in American theater, when stage actors like Cornell and Laurence Olivier, who were performing classics by such icons as Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, were being eclipsed by method actors, including Marlon Brando, in works by modern playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

The title of this play refers to the "grand manner" of acting that was giving way to a more gritty, realistic style.

"The Grand Manner" reflects Gurney's talent for insightful dialogue and strong characters. It's well cast. Kasady Riley plays the young Gurney, Peter to some, Pete to himself. He opens the play by explaining to the audience that he once went backstage in New York and met the celebrated Katharine Cornell after a performance of "Antony and Cleopatra." After this brief meeting is enacted, he again turns to the audience to explain how he expanded the meeting, in his imagination, and this version becomes the play. The drama builds, and the second act is full of action and surprises.

Riley creates a charming young Gurney, awed by the great actress, but feisty enough to discuss the play and express opinions. He is convincing as he reacts, sometimes humorously, to becoming involved with these increasingly fascinating theater folk.

Toni Young is excellent as the first lady of American theater. She endows Cornell with a dramatic presence, using gestures and body language befitting a great actress, who is as charismatic offstage as on. As she reveals her self-doubts and laments her "grand manner" becoming obsolete, she becomes likable and sympathetic.

As Guthrie McClintic, her husband and director, Tracy Mayfield is blustery and profane. He does a fine job of portraying a man who appears to be in command, but is revealed to be truly vulnerable as the surprising nature of the relationship of man and wife (and actor and director) is revealed. (A warning at the box office that the play has adult language refers primarily to him.) Jeff Walters plays this role in the matinee performances.

Sandy Bosworth is Gert, Cornell's "personal manager and assistant and great and good friend." She plays her as a no-nonsense organizer and protector who thinks she has more power than she does.

The play is based on the lives of Cornell and Guthrie, and familiar names of actors, writers, directors and other public figures of the times are scattered throughout it. The dialogue is rich with theatrical history and philosophy.

The scenario is a slice of life in the early post-World War II era, when things were changing rapidly, with television and movies taking over the realm of entertainment, leaving some reluctant talents behind.

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