by Richard Dodds
Danger lurks when the quaint becomes relevant again. Take for example the title character of Maurice, E.M. Forster's 1913 novel that the author insisted only be published posthumously, which occurred in 1971.
While friends and relations are repulsed by Maurice's admission of homosexual feelings, despite his search for a cure, he looks to a hypnotist to turn him around. When the sessions fail, the hypnotist offers a rare bit of straightforward advice. Leave England, where homosexuality is illegal, for a country like France or Italy that had repealed sanctions against sodomy more than a century before. Maurice wonders if England's laws will ever change. "I doubt it," says the hypnotist. "England has always been disinclined to accept human nature."
In the stage adaptation of Forster's novel, making its stately American debut at New Conservatory Theatre Center, that line of dialogue elicits a laugh. The bullet train of gay rights that has seemed so inevitably speeding forward faces the prospect that the next president of the United States will want to derail the train or even put it into reverse. Quaint may not be so queer anymore.
Forster had already written A Room with a View and Howards End when he wrote Maurice, and as in the earlier novels, class differences, the arrogance of the elite, and an advocacy of humanism are important parts of the novel and its necessarily simplified stage version. Throw homosexuality into the equation, and it is a weight that the carefully wrought societal checks and balances can scarcely handle.
Maurice was dramatized by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham in 1998 for SNAP Theatre, a British touring company focusing on young audiences. While Forster's novel is dense with the characters' complicated inner thoughts, the adaptation needs to hit the pivotal plot-points while still illuminating at least some of the unspoken motivations. Parsley and Graham do a credible job at this, though the contrivance of a happy ending of which Forster himself had doubts is something that the adapters have little power to improve.
At New Conservatory, the classy veneer of Downton Abbey -type lifestyles is convincingly evoked in director George Maguire's controlled but compassionate production. As the fatherless Maurice Hall, who learns about sexuality from misguided mentors, Soren Santos gives a beautifully understated performance that communicates passion, angst, and anger in delicate strokes.
Alex Kirschner strikes a good balance between ambitious hypocrisy and genuine friendship as Clive Durham, a Cambridge student who introduces Maurice to the concept of "Greek love," but then refuses to consummate it. John Hurst does a fine job of creating three distinct older characters: a foolish teacher who tries to explain the facts of life, a family friend who recoils when Maurice admits to being "an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort," and the hypnotherapist who declares Maurice "a congenital homosexual."
There is good double-duty work from Hilary Hyatt as Maurice's personable sister and Clive's crisply efficient wife, and from Andrew Nolan as a Cambridge fop and a servant who breaks both sexual and social barriers for the increasingly fierce Maurice. Lindsey Murray completes the cast in typical motherly tones as Maurice's surviving parent.
The multi-scene play is presented on a largely empty stage attractively framed by Kuo-Hao Lo's set. Jorge Hernandez's period costumes are an asset, and while Josh Senick's sound design often provides constructive musical underscoring, it can occasionally expand into melodramatic enhancement.
Maurice is in the Masterpiece Theatre style of drama, which is not a criticism. It takes us into a different world that we may envy for the luxury of its formalities and to be grateful for not having to live within its constraints – whether you are of the 1% or 99%.
Maurice will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through March 25. Tickets are $25-$36. Call 861- 8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.