This Happy Breed

TimeLine Theatre Company

The title of Noel Coward’s little-known 1942 drama This Happy Breed is ironic: though it comes from Shakespeare’s paean to England as “this orb, this sceptre’d isle,” the English family it portrays appears more durable than happy and England more desert than Eden. It remains an “isle,” of course, but one they were marooned on by the shipwreck of World War I.

On its face, This Happy Breed is an unremarkable family melodrama set between 1919 and 1939. But every banal occurrence reflects the influence of a world war or the Depression. And in TimeLine Theatre’s excellent production, the play’s tight focus–a single family in a single room–suggests The Diary of Anne Frank more than anything by the witty author of Private Lives and Present Laughter. There’s the same claustrophobia, the same bickering, and the same stubbornly independent young woman watching it all, yearning to get away.

The family consists of Frank, a World War I vet; his wife, Ethel; son Reg; dutiful daughter Vi; and wild daughter Queenie. Bob Mitchell is a buddy of Frank’s from the trenches; his son, who’s in love with Queenie, joins the navy because there’s so little work. Aunt Sylvia lives with the family because her fiance was killed in the war, and Reg expresses his adolescent rebellion by threatening to join the Communist Party and participating in the 1926 general strike that shut down English industry for nine days. Queenie is drawn in by the parties and loosened sexual mores of the Roaring 20s. Some of Coward’s historical references seem gratuitous–it’s clunky to bring up the Sino-Japanese War only to say “That’s way over on the other side of the world!” But others magnify the family experience, as when the king’s abdication to marry “the woman I love” echoes Queenie’s disruptive affair with a married man.

This play puts the rest of Coward’s work in a whole new light: all his feckless, reckless, devil-may-care young things are dancing as fast as they can before death overtakes them. At the same time, This Happy Breed shows unmistakable signs of having been written by someone more comfortable with comedy than drama: the flat-out exposition that’s hilarious in comedy falls here with a thud. I’d rather discover the characters, not catch them as they’re being thrown at me (“I couldn’t let my own sister-in-law live alone after her lover was killed in the war”).

But with the help of Mike Tutaj’s projections–still photos and newsreel clips from the relevant year introduce each scene–director Nick Bowling conveys the sense that the Gibbonses are hemmed in on every side by death. And the performances are superb. Terry Hamilton plays Frank, an ordinary man facing upheaval with exceptional equanimity and only the occasional bender. He’s well balanced by Isabel Liss as Ethel, the rock of the family devoted to keeping the world’s centrifugal forces from tearing them apart. The ensemble does a remarkable job of evoking sympathy for the younger generation, who are essentially representatives of various concepts–the good daughter, the Bolshevik friend. And Dana Black, blessed with a true character in Queenie, knocks the ball out of the park, conveying her restlessness and the sad truth that history is a nightmare from which she cannot wake.

For a man whose best-known work anatomizes the discontents of marriage–in Private Lives Amanda and Elyot are happier together divorced than married, while in Present Laughter husband and wife run two entirely separate sexually lively menages–Coward’s presentation of this conventional family is surprisingly sympathetic. He occasionally falls into sentimentality, but there’s enough humor among the minor characters to leaven it. In any case, sentimental or not, the final scene affirming the strength of family is heartbreaking because, whatever the play’s failings, the production is utterly truthful. Even the costumes (by Nicole Rene Burchfield) are faithful to the minor shifts in fashion that, over 20 years, completely transformed what was acceptable in the display of women’s bodies.

Tom Burch’s cluttered set is one of the production’s few weaknesses. Crammed to the gills with Victorian sofas and occasional tables bearing newfangled electric lights, it looks perfect but it interferes with sight lines for the audience, which surrounds the stage on three sides. And Andrew Hansen’s original music and sound design go overboard, telling the audience what to feel, like the organ in a soap opera, when the photos and text have already taken them there.

This Happy Breed shows us a different Coward, a person capable of exhaustion and despair. At the same time it exhorts the audience not to succumb to those emotions; as Frank says, “England’s gotten tired, but she’ll always fight back.” Maybe that’s why my own political exhaustion began to lift as I watched: I started to believe we’ll come back as well.

When: Through 12/19: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Baird Hall Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (courtyard entrance)

Price: $10-$22

Info: 773-281-8463

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lara Goetsch.