Saturday, May 15, 2010

THE WISHING WELL

Fairies and real estate double dealings form the core of THE WISHING WELL (1923), by that always remarkable team of May Hewes and John Wilson Dodge (with cover art by Cynthia Dodge). Even with their consistently unique construction -- a sprawling first act, a middling second act, and an abbreviated (yet exposition-heavy) third act -- this particular work is almost satisfying.

The basic story revolves around Lady Mary Donnell, an impoverished member of the Irish gentry. Her finances are such that, in desperation, she's unwittingly taken out a second mortgage on her estate through the connivings of Squire Matthew Baxby.

Her niece Noreen has met a gentleman vagabond named Terrence O'More -- who's actually Sir Terrence O'Grady, from a wealthy family. He's been in love with Mary since they were children, but she thinks he (the nobility version of Terrence) is just stringing her along. Terrence knows about Baxby's duplicity and tries to intervene, but to no avail. In the process, Mary discovers who Terrence is and what Baxby wants, and it's all just awful.

So, to try and remedy things, Terrence tells Noreen that there's an old wishing well in the garden and that fairies who live there will grant anything one wants. She wishes for a fortune, which Terrence easily supplies. The mortgages are paid, the estate stays in Mary's hands, and you'd think everything would be set up for the inevitable meeting of kindred spirits...

... but this is a Dodge creation, so we have to wade through a couple of pages of exposition at the top of the very short Act Three, in which Mary is convinced that Terrence is not engaged to someone else and really does love her. That little misunderstanding out of the way, we can move along to the utterly expected finale.

Now, on top of that is a second little story that involves the fairies... who do indeed live in the bottom of the garden. They pop out of the well, they weave through the various love affairs, and they mysteriously insert themselves into the finale. Beyond that, they serve nothing in propelling the plot, but that's okay, because the Dodges have given them some really lovely music to sing. The whole score is quite the delight, a mixture of old folk songs and original work that has an authentically Irish feel to it. I can even manage to overlook the clumsy construction (which would actually be rewoven into a more satisfying two-acter), because this ia arguably the Dodge's best work aside from the already discussed CRIMSON EYEBROWS. The three principals are all written with more than the usual juvenile operetta depth, and the supporting characters provide not only good comic relief as well as a bit of decent dramatic tension. The groomsman Dan and the maid Kathleen and the old married couple Darby and Nora steal the stage in every scene they appear in, and Baxby's lawyer Felix Murphy is perhaps a step or two from the classic melodrama villain, save with an Irish brogue.

A reader of the blog sent me a photo of a production of WISHING WELL from 1927 at Turlock Union High School. I have no doubt it was a lovely production if this one image is any indication.

Overall, WISHING WELL is a charming and surprisingly delicate work that could use just a bit of editing and rewrite to make it function a little more smoothly. Not the best the genre has to offer, but certainly far from being the worst. If anything, WISHING WELL demonstrates the innocent beauty that was the juvenile operetta, a gentle simplicity of purpose. Once again, I'm reminded that these little pieces will probably never see the boards again, not unless presented for camp value. Their earnestness would now be seen as silly and derisive...

... which really is a shame.

(Happy news: I've found a copy of the script to THE COUNT AND THE CO-ED, one of the musicals discussed in the "Orphans" post, and I'm really excited to see what this Morgan/O'Hara collaboration brings. Also, I came across a one-hour radio version of THE PINK LADY, by Ivan Caryll, performed by the Chicago Theatre of the Air in the 1930s. It's a truncated script, but enough that I can finally post something on that wonderfully lush and romantic work.)

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