An aging, unpopular teacher reaches a crossroads at which life’s big questions stare him down en masse. The Browning Version,– Terence Rattigan’s 1949 play, follows English schoolmaster Andrew Crocker-Harris (an entirely breathtaking Bruce French) on his journey toward semi-retirement, a path strewn with feelings of failure in the classroom and agonizing evidence of matrimonial shortcomings.
Saddled with a heart condition, an ailment of the body that also overburdens his spirit, Crocker-Harris is about to leave behind two decades of teaching classical Greek literature, a subject that stands as the great love of his life. On his last day at school, Crocker-Harris learns from the outwardly gregarious, inwardly greedy headmaster, Dr. Frobisher (the always effective Orson Bean) that his pension has been denied. He also learns from his younger, more friendly replacement, Peter Gilbert (Michael Redfield), that the students dislike him more than he thought. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s serpent-tongued spouse, Millie Crocker-Harris (Sally Smythe), is visiting a much younger teacher, Frank Hunter (Michael Balsley), between the sheets.
There’s a bright spot in all this gloom, the relationship between the world-weary teacher and a student, John Taplow (a boyishly charming Justin Preston), who gives Crocker-Harris a parting gift that touches the seemingly untouchable older man to his core. When the teacher takes an awkward stab at sharing the joyful gift-giving moment with his wife, her rebuke plays precisely like a dagger piercing his heart.
The element that makes the story more heartbreaking than your average late-in-life set of crises, is the way in which Rattigan has crafted the character of Andrew Crocker-Harris. The character’s initial stiffness and total lack of emotional availability set us up for some serious pain when we glimpse him in unexpected moments of uncontrollable sadness. The text is in magnificent hands at Pacific Resident Theatre, with director Marilyn Fox delving deep into the complex pathos of a man whose British reserve and complete sense of disillusionment have forced him to live on an emotionally void island, disconnected from his fellow man. It’s no wonder his heart hurts.
French breathes utterly authentic life into the layered lead role. The actor seems to leave his own body to show us the complete heart, soul and mind of a man stranded.
Through January at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Call 310.822.8392.