It was a different time, a different world back in 1938 when Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the King and Queen of American theater. The line between the onstage couple and offstage couple was often blurred as theater imitated life and their life imitated theater.
Celebrated for their sophisticated comic skills, the Lunts' trademark was their ability to swiftly overlap dialogue with such adroitness that every word was understood. The couple was always "on stage"--whether at their Wisconsin "Ten Chimney's" retreat or on Broadway. They made a pact to work on stage together and never accept parts in separate plays. They also had written into their Theatre Guild contract that they would never perform in the summer because they would summer at their Ten Chimneys estate.
The Lunt's life story is a fascinating one. Lynn Fontanne (1887 – 1983) and Alfred Lunt (1892 – 1977), who married in 1922 created an aura about themselves that drew people to them. Famed actors of the times including: Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh and Helen Hayes were among the many famous guests that came to the Lunt's out-of-the-way estate in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin which was named for the train depot near the couple's estate.
A visit in 2009 to house and grounds of the Ten Chimneys, by BJ Jones, the artist director of the Northlight Theatre and playwright Jeffery Hatcher set the wheels spinning for the current production. Taken from a real life incident, the story unfolds during the summer of 1938 when the Lunts were rehearsing their parts for Chekhov's "The Seagull" which they would be performing on Broadway in the fall. They had invited, as they often did, some of the other actors in the play to join them for rehearsal.
The story offers some smoke but not a lot of fire. It provides a slice-of-life glimpse into the private lives of these very public figures but fails to create the glamour associated with that era. Instead, it seems somewhat disjointed with a number of stories competing with each other. The chemistry and relationship between V Craig Heidenreich (Alfred Lunt) and Lia Mortensen (Lynn Fontanne) was a positive one and is the main story. The arrival of a young Uta Hagen (Sara J. Griffin) to rehearse her part as the ingenue Nina playing against Alfred's Trigorin set sparks flying--flaming an offstage romantic triangle that rivals the onstage drama. Lynn, cast as the fading actress Irina Arkadina in "The Seagull", appears both helpful to Hagen in rehearsing her "Nina" role yet other times jealous of her on-stage relationship with Alfred.
Steve Pringle did a commendable job in his role as the great character actor Sydney Greenstreet. Alfred's mother Hattie (Linda Kimbrough) is humorous as she criticizes Lynn and vies for the attentions of her son. Lunts' half-sister Louise (Janet Ulrich Brooks--who did a yeoman's job in her role) adds another layer to the story with her portrayal of the sarcastic and unhappy caretaker of the estate. Lunt's brother and sometimes chauffeur Lance Baker as Carl, seems to be another hanger-oner. A former boyhood friend of Lunt, appearing in an off-stage reference, hints at a gay relationship. At times there was a little confusion, with the play within a play concept, where audience members not familiar with "The Seagull" couldn't tell if the acting was part of the Chekhov play or the Ten Chimneys story.
The choice of Chekhov's "The Seagull" was a sound one as their are many parallels between the Chekhov play and the storyline of Hatcher's Ten Chimneys. Both plays feature a young manipulative actress; an older actress, an attractive older man; a country manor and are plays within a play.
The house, about which the story centers creates an attractive background with Tom Burch's Set Design along with Rachel Laritz's Costume Design and JR Lederle (Lighting Design) and Joe Cerqua (Sound Design).
Tickets for Ten Chimneys, $25-60, are available by phone at 847.673.6300, or online at northlight.org. Young Adult tickets (25 and under) are $10 (one per person with valid ID). The Box Office is located at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, in Skokie. Box Office hours are Monday-Friday 10:00am-5:00pm, and Saturdays 12:00pm-5:00pm. On performance days, the box office hours are extended through showtime. The Box Office is closed on Sundays, except on performance days when it is open two hours prior to showtime.
Curtain times are: Tuesdays at 1:00pm (April 3 only) and 7:30pm (April 3 only); Wednesdays at 1:00pm and 7:30pm (no show April 11); Thursday at 7:30pm; Fridays at 8:00pm.; Saturdays at 2:30pm. and 8:00pm; and Sundays at 2:30pm (no show April 8) and 7:00pm (April 1, and April 15 only).