What begins as a light-hearted comedy of manners set in pristine, wealthy suburbia, transforms into a dark look inside what it takes to stay there.
The lengths that people go to keep up appearances with their neighbors is explored in the University of Maryland’s School of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies production of “Everything in the Garden,” opening Friday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
Set in the 1960s in Westchester County, N.Y., “Everything in the Garden” tells the story of married couple Richard and Jenny, whose otherwise happy lives are marred only by money woes, as they struggle to try to keep up the lifestyle they want for themselves and their son.
Everything changes when Jenny is approached by Mrs. Toothe, a seemingly upstanding British woman who offers her an opportunity to earn some money on the side. The only catch: Jenny would do so by lying on her back in a high-class brothel.
Months later, after money begins pouring into their household, Richard’s realization of Jenny’s actions leads to an unforgettable dinner party with the neighbors that reveals the true character of each of the suburbanites.
Director Scot Reese says the play is a parable of greed and warped values that raises questions regarding consumerism and whether the end is worth the means.
“How far will you go and, also, what is your moral compass? What is your ethical compass?” asks Reese, who also is a theater professor at UM.
“Everything in the Garden” was originally written for the stage by London-based playwright Giles Cooper, and adapted for American audiences in 1967 by Edward Albee, the playwright known for “The Zoo Story” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Though set in the 1960s, Reese believes that the issues Jenny and Richard face are not so different than the problems of modern families, especially those struggling in a poor economy.
“They’re afraid of their world changing, like we are now,” says Reese. “You can’t look around, look at the newspaper, and not see what going on with us. It’s the same thing — all these people living beyond their means.”
The 1960s saw racial turmoil at home, warfare overseas in Vietnam and the mind-set that women shouldn’t work, all of which actor John Wahl believes exacerbates the couple’s poor decision-making while they are trying to steady their own lives and maintain their idea of the status quo.
“It’s a time of tumultuous change. Nothing is as it seems anymore,” says Wahl, 22, of Huntingtown.
Wahl, who portrays Richard, says the story does a good job of using different forms of humor to tell the story of the darkness that dwells in desire.
“It’s an interesting shift from sitcom-like funny to dark, Albee-funny. … The emotional journey that Richard has to take is absurd and extreme,” he says.
Actor Juliette Ebert believes her character Mrs. Toothe is not vicious in her actions, but rather sees herself as a fairy godmother-like benefactor who provides an opportunity for women to improve their lives.
“She is definitely not selfish; she certainly wants to help these people, she knows that they want to be comfortable and safer,” says Ebert, 21, of Silver Spring.
While the characters in “Garden” are trying to maintain appearances in the upper echelon of society, Ebert believes that the way the story unfolds isn’t farfetched for any socioeconomic group.
“I think it could be applied to anyone in any social circle or anywhere that you are,” she says. “There is always some sort of hierarchy; there is always some sort of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.”