Bailiwick Repertory and Tea Party Productions

How does Christopher Cartmill manage to retain his romantic vision at his age and in our age? And how does the author of Incorruptible and the adapter of Dickens’s The Haunted Man continue to convey that vision with such unashamed honesty and dignity that even cynics are caught up? Light in Love, his most recent offering, is set in a post-Civil War south with no evidence of devastation and no racial tensions save in the most mean spirited. It’s a postbellum paradise where the woods are lush and green and the barns clean and “sweet-smelling,” where rural families always have plenty of good things to eat. And we believe it.

The first in a trilogy of plays tracing the adventures of the fictional Templeton Light, Light in Love opens with the Light family visiting Washington, D.C., for the centennial and the hero Templeton lost with his older brother, James, somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley. In a quarrel over whose error caused them to be lost, Templeton is stabbed in the leg–not severely, but enough to require them to seek assistance. The nearest farm is populated by an engagingly eccentric quasi-family: Perdita, a pregnant widow who is, by marriage, the owner of the property (she is also black, a circumstance that bothers only James); a fiercely straitlaced spinster named Mrs. Peck; a genial ex-actor called Phineas Wise, Professor, and “You Old Fool”; and the lovely young Kathleen, with whom Templeton falls head-over-heels in love, even after learning that she’s engaged to the shy, Bible-quoting Calvin.

“Happiness, especially where love is concerned, is invariably bought with someone else’s unhappiness,” Templeton observes as he spirits away Kathleen, who has accepted his marriage proposal. But now there is the matter of introducing her to the Light household, an equally motley clan that’s not nearly as charming. His father cares only about making money (he changes his wartime allegiances to preserve his business), and his mother cares only about domestic status. The ill-tempered James sobs in his sleep for unexplained reasons, and his flighty sister Lavinia has an obsession with taxidermy that has frightened off every eligible suitor her mother has found her. Though it is the wholly unsympathetic Mrs. Light who declares, “In order to be happy, every . . . thing must be in its place,” Kathleen recognizes the wisdom of her words. Templeton takes longer to convince, but eventually he comes to understand and accept the precept first uttered by the jilted Calvin: “The Good Book says that love does not seek its own. That means that love is not selfish. . . . If I love you, then that means I want the best for you. If the best is not me, then I should not wish you less.”

In a world such as ours, selfless virtue such as this is only a step away from mawkishness, but Cartmill narrates his tale of lost love with an uncloying integrity. If his universe is a bit too idyllic and his characters too uncalculating to be true–by our standards, anyway–they are still consistent in their own truth and command our respect. The exquisite language Cartmill puts into the mouths of his characters also makes us want to like and believe in these people. Some of this is witty in a comedy-of-manners mode–Templeton describes his mother “practicing various kinds of smiles. When she found one she liked, she finally spoke.” More often it is educative: “Happiness is an important thing to protect,” Perdita tells the heartbroken Templeton as he prepares to leave the Eden he has found in the woods of Kentucky. “Next time you’re lost, remember what it was you found here.”

Cartmill, the quintessential WASP, plays Templeton with the unmalicious mischievousness of a postadolescent Tom Sawyer, and Barbara Prescott makes a Kathleen to enchant any naive young swain. Judith West as the practical Mrs. Peck and Jerry Bloom as the hearty Phineas Wise deliver generous and uncaricatured portraits. Susan Payne as the saintly Perdita, Mary Mares as the bubbly Lavinia, Lawrence Woshner as the pompous James, and Richard Sherman as the humble Calvin all give humanity and depth to characters that could easily have become cartoons in the hands of less sensitive performers. Philip Nolan’s set and Nanette M. Acosta’s costumes look like they belong to another play, but Roger Day’s delicate banjo and fiddle music gives the production a nostalgic glow.