For the last five years, Old Creamery has held its studio productions in a tiny black theatre made from the remnants of a band room in Amana Elementary School, leftover from when the middle school wing moved to a new building. As I settled into my seat to watch The Old Creamery Theatre’s Studio Stage production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, the sense of intimacy was palpable.
Over the course of three acts, the small cast proceeded full-throttle into portraying the on-again off-again relationship of Elyot (Jim Van Valen) and Amanda (Saffron Henke). After divorcing five years ago, Elyot and Amanda run into each other while honeymooning with their band-new, younger spouses. Realizing that they still have a spark of attraction for each other, they run off to Amanda’s Paris apartment where chaos ensues.
Van Valen and Henke match each other’s energy with every change of affection, mirroring all of the anger, panic and awkwardness necessary to portray British comedy’s ultimate “It’s Complicated” couple. Their talent for physical comedy is a highlight of the play, bringing the loudest audience laughs with a bout of passive-aggressive dancing and what can only be described as the world’s angriest pillow fight. Though the action requires them to be at all-out war with each other, they also displayed a remarkable sense of bodily control — a necessary factor when doing stage combat in a space so small that one wrong move can result in a black-eyed audience member. Through the ups and downs, Van Valen and Henke deliver a believable portrayal of a couple with a long history, one where the partners have seen each other at their best and worst (Well, maybe a little heavier on the “worst” side).
As Elyot’s young wife Sybil and Amanda’s puppy-eyed husband Victor, actors Laura Ernst and Eric Hedlund gamely portray the sense of two young people who are trying too hard to appear more mature. Their insecurity over their more-experienced spouses is apparent in their stiff and prim posture and Ernst’s clipped delivery, which serves as a nice contrast to Van Valen and Henke’s loose vocal and physicality. However, their performances remained buttoned-up for so long that when they experience a final change in demeanor, it appears to come out of nowhere.
The play is a comedy of manners, a theatrical genre that Coward helped to adapt to the 1930’s. A fan of rom-coms might be tempted to believe that the play will be a predictable series of delightful romantic misunderstandings. What keeps the play from being a bag of clichés is placing the big reveal of Elyot and Amanda staying at the same hotel in Act 1, thwarting padded out attempts to keep them apart. It also has an undercurrent of death and violence that gives the dialogue an unusual edge. There are playful threats of murder, and Amanda tries to convince Victor to leave their current hotel by claiming her sister had been murdered there. When Victor points out that she never had a sister, Amanda responds, “I think there was a stillbirth baby in there somewhere.” Even in their reunited bliss, Elyot and Amanda muse on death and Elyot urges, “Come and kiss me before your body rots.”
A director could very easily put too much emphasis on these elements. In particular, Victor’s concern over Amanda being struck by Elyot stands out as unusual in a time when there was not a lot of public awareness of domestic violence. During a post-show Q&A, director Sean McCall explained that he had seen a stage production of Private Lives (with Alan Rickman as Elyot) in which the director had a much darker take on the material. McCall strikes the right balance. Rather than ignoring the unhealthy elements of Elyot and Amanda’s relationship or emphasizing the nastiness for shock value, the darker elements serve as a backdrop—a reminder that the characters are using romance as a way to fill their time before they reach the Great Unknown.
The post-show Q&A appears to be a regular feature of this production. Audience members had a rare chance to learn more about the actors’ preparations for the show, their work on accents, and what inspired them. It also gave the cast and crew a chance to show their deep appreciation for their audience. For a show called Private Lives, it felt appropriate to have the evening end on an intimate discussion.
The Old Creamery Theatre’s Studio Stage is not an easy trek, especially returning home on pitch-black country roads. It can also be tricky for first-time patrons to find the space considering that it is housed in the same building as an elementary school. Those who put in the effort to seek it out will be rewarded with a show that is both sparkling and acidic in its wit, as well as an opportunity to learn more about the private life of one of eastern Iowa underrated theatre companies.
Private Lives runs until April 13. Visit the Old Creamery website for ticket details.