Playwright A.R. “Pete” Gurney has carved out a brilliant career documenting the decline of the American WASP. From the abandonment of the dining room, the abrogation of the cocktail hour and the fading glory of the Golden Age, Gurney has monitored the disappearance of the country club set from the modern upper middle class with keen acumen and dry wit. So it seems a strange departure for the playwright to venture to the land of Greek myth with an adaptation of a classic battle of wills in “Another Antigone,” currently in production at The Theater at Hubbard Hall.
As the play opens, at a New England college, senior student Judy Miller is in contentious conference with her Greek classics professor, Henry Harper. For her paper on Sophocles, Judy has submitted a contemporary version of “Antigone,” which does not satisfy the course requirements. Harper rejects her paper as just another “Antigone,” a simplistic statement of her personal philosophy that has nothing to do with Sophocles; he ends the discussion with the warning that she needs to rewrite the paper in the manner assigned or she will not graduate.
Harper’s inflexibility and aloofness pushes Judy to refuse to withdraw her paper and instead organize a school production of her script that will recognize and accept her efforts as valid. Battle lines are set and weapons are drawn — it’s a classic situation–war.
This is hardly war. Judy, all this can be solved by just rewriting your term paper. What’s with all the drama?
The real question is why the play must be updated at all. Sophocles’ retelling of the myth is perfectly accessible to modern audiences, captured wonderfully in an ubiquitous adaptation by Anouilh.
In the classic tale, Antigone is tortured between obeying the laws of the State or obeying a higher moral law that no man should question. Should she risk exile by burying her slain brother, who has been left in the sun to rot by her Uncle Creon (King of Thebes by proxy) or must she damn the laws of Kings, heed the laws within and take the punishment dealt in order to be viscerally sated? Creon, of course, cannot allow his niece to disregard the law (a law he dictated) and begs her to see how authority creates order and order is the paragon. That’s some real conflict! Who wins out? Let’s just say the body count and the end of Sophocles’ Antigone numbers more than four and no one is victorious.
In Gurney’s retelling, no one’s dead (that we know of) and the conflicts generated cannot compare to the original. In “Another Antigone,” the student’s intentions are vague more than self-serving, and the use of anti-Semitism as a possible silent weapon of combat seems all too pat and obvious.
In “Another Antigone,” we are never truly convinced that Judy has been wronged or faces any moral crisis. Judy simply chooses not to follow the rules and won’t accept the consequences. She wants an “A” for an assignment she didn’t do. No sympathy from me. But all is not lost.
The assembled cast is anything but tragic. Philip Kerr as the professor, a scholastic stuck-in-the mud of authority and ritual, is simply magnificent. Finding all the tick and nuance of a rumpled professor on the fast track to furlough, Kerr invites the audience to witness a man confront a world where the rules have changed and his order is questioned. Slowly acknowledging the fact that he may no longer belong in his world, we watch with sympathy and pity as his cluelessness compacts him. It’s a frighteningly real and tragic portrayal.
Equaling his excellence is Sarah-Jane Gwilliam as Diana, dean of humanities, the playwright’s stand-in for the part of the chorus. Using a soft comforting demeanor, Gwilliam makes the gentle prodding of Harper toward his precipice painless and swift.
As the rebel without a true cause, Judy Miller, Erin Cousins corrals all the cerebral conflict but is unable to bring the passion to a rapid boil. But the actress nails the query and sadness at the end of the play when she realizes she may have been fighting a valiant battle in the wrong war.
Rounding out the cast as Judy’s boyfriend cum traitor, Jason Dolmetsch makes the dramatic arch with seamless effort.
While the ending of the play created a lively and spirited discussion on the drive home, the 100 previous minutes spent in the theater were a little less dynamic. Gurney’s “Another Antigone” is far cry from its inspiration.