More than 100 years after its publication, E.M. Forster’s classic novel about family, love, and class in a rapidly evolving society is experiencing a renaissance due to its uncanny relevance in today’s world of income inequality and digital disconnection. A Kenneth Lonergan-penned miniseries aired in 2017, Claudia Stevens and Allen Shearer’s chamber opera set in America premiered earlier this year, and now Remy Bumppo’s first commissioned piece brings the expansive dramedy to the stage in a new adaptation.
Written by Chicago playwright Douglas Post and directed by Remy Bumppo artistic director Nick Sandys, this two-act production enhances the intimacy of live theater to reimagine the theme of “only connect,” the novel’s most-quoted phrase. Beginning after the funeral of Wilcox family matriarch Ruth, the rest of the Wilcox clan are introduced as detached and materialistic, more in shock over Ruth’s decision to leave one of their homes, Howards End, to an outsider than her passing itself. A cut to the home of the Schlegel sisters, Margaret (beneficiary of Howards End) and Helen, reveals two women completely without interest in this crude capitalism, yet completely reliant on a 600-pound monthly allowance to support their intellectual and artistic pursuits.
Margaret, played by carefully restrained Eliza Stoughton, and Helen, played by charmingly brash Heather Chrisler, create a sibling relationship that anchors the plot and provides commentary on major issues of both the Edwardian and modern eras. While Margaret is prone to rule following and pontificating and Helen is motivated by drama and action, both find themselves enamored with and feeling sorry for Leonard Bast, a lower-class insurance clerk struggling to make ends meet. Margaret’s comment, “the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin,” underscores the pragmatism of any romantic love to follow. Helen’s retort, “You have had a very strong reaction to the Brahms,” illustrates the sharp, dry humor coupled with every social criticism.
Throughout their interactions with the Wilcox and Bast families, the Schlegel sisters grow into fully realized, and fully flawed, characters exuding admirable independence given the pressures and lack of rights (e.g. voting) given to women of their day. The way they examine their own privilege is a modern exercise many cis, white, and wealthy people grapple with today, as are Margaret’s pull toward the safety of marriage and Helen’s aversion to the restraints of convention.
When Margaret eventually weds Henry Wilcox, played with a mix of vigor and uptight stodginess by Mark Ulrich, she’s disappointingly muted until a captivating final moment of agency and anger in defense of her sister. Theirs is the true love story of the play, and the two are eventually left together to keep London, “a civilization in love with velocity,” at bay. Given today’s “architecture of hurry,” we can all relate. v