A distinguished gentleman who wants nothing more than to fade away unnoticed after a respected public career is not allowed to go gently in T.S. Eliot’s The Elder Statesman. In fact, this rarely produced verse drama about a man who checks into a decidedly unrestful rest home suggests that in 1958, the then-elderly poet and a young provocateur named Harold Pinter were of remarkably like minds.
At that point, Pinter was just starting to pen such theater-of-menace classics as The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, sending sinister characters to disrupt otherwise quiet households with alarmingly ambiguous demands. While Eliot’s stage oeuvre had mostly been sunnier (or at any rate, concerned with redemption), in this last of the poet’s five verse plays, he adopted Pinter’s strategy for tormenting his titular statesman, Lord Claverton (John Dow), plaguing him with what might be termed intimate strangers from his past.
First to arrive is a shady businessman with a familiar face but a new name—Gomez (Robert Leembruggen)—whom Claverton suspects is bent on blackmail though he claims only to want to re-establish youthful ties that have long since frayed.
“Since you left England,” Claverton offers diplomatically.
“Since I finished my sentence,” Gomez agrees lightly, before reminiscing with a studied casualness about a collegiate drive by moonlight, the very mention of which unsettles the great man. Equally distressing after his arrival at the rest home is the presence of a chatty widow (Jewel Robinson) who is miffed that Claverton doesn’t remember her.
Forcing the title character to confront long-buried memories of his own less-than-honorable behavior is thereafter the order of the day. Pinter would have twisted the screws tighter, but Eliot, working from a blueprint of Greek tragedy (the plot is loosely based on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, a fact gently referenced by Kirk Kristibas’ columned setting) proves plenty adept at laying on the guilt—which the statesman is determined to expiate by confessing his sins to his children. This strategy that works better with his loving daughter and her fiancé (Kelly Renee Armstrong and Kevin Hasser) than with a resentful, neglected son (Michael Avolio). Still, redemption nearly always being the point in Eliot, there’s never much doubt where things will end up.
There is, though, sparkling banter along the way, in verse that’s light, conversational, and often—as when rest-home matron Lynn Steinmetz positively bellows “peace and quiet is our raison d’etre”—pretty funny in Bill Largess’ nimble mounting.