Family politics in Thatcher's Britain

Rachael Warren (standing) and Anne Scurria give strong performances in David Hare's play. Rachael Warren (standing) and Anne Scurria give strong performances in David Hare's play. (Mark Turek)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / March 6, 2009
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PROVIDENCE - It's easy to read "The Secret Rapture," David Hare's 1988 play of familial strife, as a commentary on Margaret Thatcher's Britain - and, by extension, on any society in which greed and sanctimony triumph over compassion and good will. It's also possible simply to watch it as the story of one unhappy family and of the difficulties we fallible humans have in taking care of one another.

The play, now at Trinity Repertory Company, focuses on two sisters: Marion, a Conservative Party minister, and Isobel, an artist, coming to terms with the death of their idealistic father. They're also dealing, more immediately, with their alcoholic and manipulative stepmother, Katherine, who seems to feel that they owe it to their father to meet her every need now that he's gone.

The family dynamics grow even more complicated when Marion's husband, a born-again-Christian businessman, acquires Isobel's struggling graphics firm under the guise of helping her out. He's helping, sure, but he's also making a handsome profit - and creating further conflict when Isobel's business and romantic partner, Irwin, seems to be choosing money over love.

All of this, whether taken as family drama or as social commentary, is at once thought-provoking and flawed: thought-provoking, because Hare mostly creates complicated characters with believably contradictory motives and articulate ways of expressing them, and flawed because, having created them, he pushes them toward a conclusion that feels at once melodramatic and deflating. Either as political allegory or as family drama, the fatal climax is more than we can believe, and less than we need.

The seeds of this trouble are sown early on, however, in the problematic character of Isobel. Though we are not quite asked to see her as a saint, she is clearly meant to be a heroine - and she is simply too passive, and too much a victim of her own passivity, to succeed in that role. Her sister belittles her, her stepmother abuses her, her boyfriend betrays her, and through it all she simply suffers - occasionally protesting, but never taking any real action to control her own life.

People can behave that way, of course, but protagonists can't. We need them to take action if we're to care about their stories.

It's hard to say whether some of the trouble is due to Trinity Repertory Company's staging, which feels handsome but distanced. Director Curt Columbus and set designer James Schuette have placed the characters in a wide-open space with nondescript gray walls, with sliding panels of various windows to indicate changes of scene, but also with a huge section of the bare wood floor thrusting forward, past the set's walls, toward the audience. A single character is frequently stranded here, no doubt to evoke a sense of emotional distance, but more often the effect is just slightly odd.

Columbus has said he chose this play because he wishes Hare were better known in the United States, and because it suited the actors he had in mind. And, indeed, Phyllis Kay is wonderfully icy at first as Marion, without succumbing to Tory caricature, then finds surprising warmth in her affecting final scene. Rachael Warren does as much with noble Isobel as can be expected; she's even endearing in an early, playful scene with Stephen Thorne's initially nerdy and ultimately unstable Irwin.

Anne Scurria's Katherine, meanwhile, is both horrifying and funny in her shameless maneuverings. Fred Sullivan Jr. brings a gentle understatement to born-again Tom, making his blandly self-serving actions more upsetting than they would be if played more broadly, and Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium student Patricia Lynn has a few chilling moments as Marion's grasping young assistant.

In the end, though, it's all just not quite enough. Even the title - apparently a reference to the religious ecstasy a nun experiences at the moment of meeting Christ, at her death - is never actually made plain. It must mean something to these characters, or at least to their creator, but we can't be sure just what.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at


Directed by: Curt Columbus. Set, James Schuette. Costumes, Ron Cesario. Lights, Deb Sullivan. Sound, Peter Sasha Hurowitz.

At: Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, through March 29. Tickets, $20-60, 401-351-4242,

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