Wheel of Misfortune

Photo by Ken Howard/SCRFew states of being are as debilitating as that induced by the realization that one's love is misplaced, misspent or unrequited. Spurned lovers question their sanity, compromise their dignity and are robbed of their individuality. They find themselves in a box so small, dark and wretched that they're never, ever going to get out. Yet, by and large, there isn't a person among us who wouldn't—or hasn't—sacrificed everything for love or something that feels like love.

The problem, as any rational person knows, is that love—or at least that all-consuming blitzkrieg of early relationship "love" called being "in love"—always flickers and fades. If you're lucky, the spark will always be there and can be reignited from time to time. But John and Yoko be damned, romance inevitably fades, and what you have left is who you are as people. That's when it starts to become work. And that's when people start flipping out.

Two female characters in W. Somerset Maugham's The Circle are faced with whether to stay in partnerships that aren't as exciting as they were or to escape via the promise of romantic love. Both are privileged—they're married to wealthy politicians with class to burn—but unhappy nonetheless. They don't have love in their life, at least the kind of love they believe they deserve.

So when it walks through the door in the person of a more reckless and romantic figure than their husbands, the women buckle. Thirty years before the play begins, Lady Catherine (Carole Shelley) made the choice to leave her priggish husband, Clive (Paxton Whitehead), for Lord Porteous (William Biff McGuire), a more passionate sort. In leaving Clive, she leaves his money and their son, Arnold, too. All for love.

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It's now Elizabeth's turn. Elizabeth (Nancy Bell) is married to Arnold (John Hines), now 35, a classic English anal retentive whose main occupations are politics and interior design. They've been married for three years, but she's unhappy. She wants to be "in love," to have romance, to be the leading lady in a fairy tale, the one she believes Lady Catherine has lived all these years.

The presence of Edward "Teddie" Luton (Douglas Weston), a passionate rubber planter who lives in an exotic overseas locale, gives Elizabeth the chance to ponder the choice her mother-in-law made so long before. So Elizabeth invites Lady Catherine, who hasn't seen her former husband or her son for 30 years, to her home in order to learn from this woman who sacrificed everything for love.

The beauty of Maugham's play is that while Elizabeth greatly admires Lady Catherine for choosing love over obligation, it's plain that Catherine and Porteous are trapped in a state of mutually assured bitterness. They bicker, drink too much and are obviously unhappy. A union forged in the flames of passion 30 years before has devolved into an emotional—and even physical—wreck.

Meanwhile, the jilted Clive is having a blast. He plays with a string of young women, is content being sans wife, and bathes in schadenfreude, taking great delight in the fact that the choice his former love made has turned out so poorly.

That's the rather complicated setup for Maugham's excellent play, receiving a sterling production at South Coast Repertory. Despite the complexities outlined above, it's fundamentally a simple tale: Will Elizabeth run off with Teddie despite the reminders that romance always fades?

Blessed with a cast that matches the grace and refinement of Ralph Funicello's picture-book set, director Warner Shook (one of the top-shelf names in directing) has crafted a production that works as precisely as Neil Peart. It's funny and biting, genteel and refined. But Shook and his cast imbue the proceedings with so much depth and substance that the emotional resonance of the play rings as true and tormented as the feelings of any of us who have loved, lost or labored with the arduous question of staying in a relationship that needs work or fleeing it in search of that perfect storybook fantasy.

Politically speaking, Maugham seems to come down on the more conservative side in regard to marriage and obligation. His Lady Catherine and Lord Porteous are moral warnings: they're a train wreck of successive extramarital affairs; they're cranky and unhappy. By contrast, the spurned Clive has transformed misfortune into opportunity.

But artistically, Maugham is more ambiguous. Sure, by play's end, you'll already have guessed which characters will settle into their respective zones of fulfillment. But ultimately, Maugham says, it's not our choices that make us happy; choices are merely products of the people we are. As one character says, it's not what you do; it's who you are—unhappy people will always be unhappy, no matter who they're with or what they're doing. Call it a lack of strong character, a refusal to peer into the darkness of their souls, or an inability to work on those aspects of themselves that make them so unfulfilled.

It's a Joseph Campbell clich, but the man knew what he knew. Life is a journey, a circle, and the spokes of that circle radiate around one center: our selves. And Maugham's play, while entertaining, is also enlightening: he seems to say that as long as that center remains weak, it will never hold; after that initial rush of blistering passion, the heart will invariably revert to form—perpetual anarchy. Until we learn how to repair ourselves, we will always long for that someone or something to make it all better.

The Circle at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Oct. 7. $27-$52.

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