Marital politics drives talky, two-character 'Petition' at Olney


In the second act of Brian Clark's "The Petition" at Olney Theatre, it suddenly starts to rain on the set -- first a sprinkle and then torrents, pouring down and soaking the shrubbery outside the windows of the elegant British drawing room where the action takes place.

It's as if director John Going and set designer James Wolk realized that this talky, two-person script needed a boost, so they decided to add rain as a third character.

Actually, by the time the rain arrives, the talk has moved into some interesting territory. In the slower, first act -- where the rain might have been more welcome -- a retired British general discovers his wife has signed a newspaper petition opposing the first strike use of nuclear weapons.

A stodgy conservative overly concerned with propriety, Gen. Sir Edmund Milne is portrayed by an appropriately harrumphing Mark Hammer; Ruby Holbrook plays his wife, Elizabeth, with a mixture of imperturbability and impish charm.

In more than 50 years of married life, Elizabeth has never done anything as bold as signing a petition; she's never even kept a secret from her husband -- or has she? The more involving aspect of "The Petition" doesn't concern petitions or national politics, it concerns marital politics and the question of how well two people know each other.

From the start, the couple's conversation appears to include excessive chatter about Elizabeth's female problems; by intermission we understand why. Mr. Clark, best known as the author of "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" has returned to the theme of death -- specifically, death as the ultimate period at the end of any argument. Though this could be seen as too easy a way to heighten debate, it is also helps focus the play on the relationship between characters.

SG And it turns out that these characters are quite different from the

way they appear. The general, whose life has centered on leading men in battle, becomes a wounded teddy bear -- an attitude Mr. Hammer humorously conveys -- when confronted with the slightest skirmish at home. But if he behaves like a child, stamping around and reaching for his bottle, it's probably because that's how his wife treats him.

Charming Elizabeth, the ideal company wife, turns out not only ++ to be deceptive, but manipulative. And, when she reveals that the only times she has felt truly alive were during an extramarital affair and when she signed the anti-nuclear petition, it seems a less than flattering comment on women.

To Mr. Clark's credit, he refrains from becoming overly sanctimonious on the ban-the-bomb subject, though he does place Elizabeth on a soapbox more than once. But the truth is -- and this is where the playwright was fooled by appearances -- her petition could be about almost anything. Heck, it could be an endorsement of rain, just as long as it reveals the marital dynamic at the center of the play.

"The Petition" continues at Olney Theatre through June 30; call (301) 924-3400.

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