Emma Rice’s stage adaptation of Noel Coward’s film Brief Encounters is a reminiscent, romantic musical journey from the 2-d passive entertainment of film to 3-d real-time story telling at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco. Rice, Artistic Director for Kneehigh Theatre in Cornwall, England, achieves adventurous, breathtaking realism by leaping from film to stage and back as effortless as if the audience is just another passenger in a 1930’s English railway tearoom. The audience is waiting to board.
The stage and production values are intentionally low budget, but highly effective. The actors not only play their parts, some multiple, but also push momentum through set management. Puppets take on the full personality of intent. Scene transitions, the steam of a film, are affected with simple set metaphor and earnest vaudevillian revelry in front of the red curtain and directly to the audience. The play begins before the last lights are down as a ukulele, stand-up base, and trumpet, serenade the audience through its final sitting.
Rice and Coward embark on a comedic, bittersweet class journey along one of love’s forbidden paths of inevitable relationships and choices. Steam is but water heated through the movement or excitement of emotions. Forbidden for 1930’s England, a doctor, Alec (played by Milo Twomey), and a married housewife, Laura (played by Hannah Yelland), meet by chance and so enjoy each other’s company over several more meetings that they fall in love. Their love is an expression of how they feel, the beauty of life being in the moment, and the consequences of action, including remorse, guilt, and longing. The housewife’s husband, Alfred (played by Joseph Alessi) is somewhat unaffected and uninvolved. Alfred knows his wife is distracted, but he is too English to display angst, anger, or even curiosity. In the scene transition to the living room, the husband always carries a floor lamp into scene. Simple stage movement that speaks volumes about his role; the lamp is a metaphor for his emotions and steadfast perseverance. Middle-class, she is too English as well to ever admit her true feelings for Alec.
Myrtle, the tearoom proprietor, (played by Annette McLaughlin) and Fred (also played by Alessi), a station platform conductor, love as much in the physical realm as the emotional; their tryst is most honest like the everyday work of an hourly wage. Beryl, Myrtle’s assistant (played by Beverly Rudd) and her son, Stanley (played by Stewart McLoughlin) are the naïveté of young love at the base of the English class system.
Although Laura and Alec’s affair is the engine of the play, it fades somewhat in comparison to the reality of the other two love stories. Perhaps Rice’s, even Coward’s intent is to show how love muddles all preconceived notions about it.
I highly recommend Brief Encounters at A.C.T for the unique staging, music, and action. It is a delightful way to spend an evening. The story is only as serious is as is necessary to laugh. Revelations about the consequences of love are an eternal theme, and Rice/Coward portray a single aspect of it beautifully.