Colonial Players’ current production of Ronald Harwood’s “Quartet” boasts a cast featuring four local luminaries in their prime, presenting characters who confront the universal problems concomitant with aging.
Set in the 1990s in a musicians’ retirement home in Kent, England, Harwood’s 1999 play explores how former colleagues, once admired opera singers now long-retired, become friends again.
Tenor Reginald Paget, mezzo Cecily Robson and baritone Wilfred Bond are reunited in this rural home where opera singers have elite residents’ status. Together, they cope with myriad problems — from loneliness, physical and mental impairment and vanity to Reggie’s daily breakfast annoyance at getting jam instead of his requested apricot marmalade.
They strive to hold their friendly trio intact, but their tranquil coexistence is disrupted with the arrival of former diva colleague Jean Horton.
Jean is resentful of her impoverished state and declining health, and is initially coolly dismissive to former husband Reginald, who has his own issues — he resents the administration’s failure to warn him of Jean’s impending arrival.
The play’s title “Quartet” refers to Giuseppe Verdi’s piece from his sublime “Rigoletto,” sung by the opera’s three protagonists — the philandering Duke of Mantua, his jester Rigoletto and innocent daughter Gilda.
In the play, the three retired singers’ recording of “Quartet” has recently been reissued in CD, persuading them to consider singing it at their annual concert honoring Verdi’s birthday.
In her program notes Director Darice Clewell notes that “the characters are as different as the four seasons, and it is their differences that made them a success on stage and now pepper their current relationships.”
Clewell has selected a cast of actors who have known each other for years, lending warmth and truth to this production.
The ensemble truly inhabits their characters. In Act 1, local musical favorite Nori Morton is barely recognizable in her straight dramatic role as Cecily Robson, lolling on a chaise lounge immersed in the music from her headphones.
Norton’s Cecily enthusiastically enjoys life as she welcomes everyone back from Karachi — a nonexistent place where no one has actually traveled. Morton invests boundless energy in her characterization of Cecily, revealing a character who is often sharp and fully in reality — yet frequently out. Whatever her state, she remains unfailingly kind and thoughtful of others.
Baritone Wilfred Bond, played by veteran actor and director Edd Miller, expresses a fondness for lovable Cecily. Miller says he has “been waiting more than 50 years to play… this man over 70 and still vibrant.”
The vibrancy shows. Miller never offends, but humorously reflects an aging British rogue in Wilfred’s insecurity, loneliness and affection for Cecily.
Consummate ensemble actor Miller also has effortless rapport with Rick Wade as Reggie. Lending his own unique glow to this “Quartet” ensemble is Wade, who for nearly 50 years has directed some 30 productions and authored several plays and musicals. He’s been an infrequent actor here, yet masterfully summons a gamut of reactions to Jean’s interruption of tranquility at the residence. He’s fuming one moment, then checking his rage the next with a profound apology.
When their relationship softens, Jean and Reggie banter about her habitually repeating favorite stories. “You’re repeating yourself, Jean,” he notes, then transitions to, “What does it matter? We’re opera singers who repeat ourselves all the time.”
Equally demanding is the role of Jean Horton, expertly realized by Players veteran Marti Pogonowski, who summons Jean’s overbearing dismissive attitude toward others and resentment of her current state. After Pogonowski’s Jean sinks to cruel treatment of Cicely, she transforms into a concerned and apologetic friend.
Opera singing demands strong mental and physical commitment, and the quartet of actors do a stellar job conveying the difficulties these characters face as their beautiful singing voices diminish. The retired performers’ plight is indeed poignant, particularly Jean having no desire to compete with a recording of her younger self.
As they advance toward a performance, Reggie arranges and presides over a rigorous rehearsal schedule where the four singers work together.
How does it turn out? No spoilers here, but fans of the Colonial Players and of theater in general will not be disappointed.
“Quartet” continues through Feb. 4 at the Colonial Players, 108 East St., Annapolis. For tickets call the box office at 410-268-7373 or go to thecolonialplayers.org.