There are those people that just suck the air out of the room and drain all living creatures near them of energy and ambition—even the ambition to go for a walk. This is the sardonically tale of one such person—and it rings as true in 2019 as it must have in the first decade of the twentieth century, when the play is set.
This is a very well-done piece and quietly gets under the skin—you want to see Miss Roberts break free and Mr. and Mrs. Baxter awaken from the somnambulance that her very nature has trapped them in. It’s a lovely journey.
‘The Mollusc’ in this case is Mrs. Baxter, a seemingly charming and frail woman who just never wants to put anyone out, but needs help with, well, everything. The household is rounded out by Mr. Baxter, who is semi-retired, and Miss Roberts, the governess to the couple’s two children (never seen, but immensely sympathized with) and an unseen household staff.
Mrs. Baxter’s brother, Tom Kemp, is coming for a long visit from his home in Colorado. His entry into this languishing and genteel household in England is the deux de machina that will pry loose his sister’s tight hold on her household.
Mrs. Baxter is well-played by Marnie Kanarek—she is so very gracious and with just a lift of her well-bred eyebrow can convey such sorrow at other people’s shortcomings that she is a master of guilt and guile and soul-crushing.
The crisis is set in motion by Miss Roberts, who has informed Mr. Baxter that she needs to hand in her notice, as she has taught the daughters of the house all she can and they need someone better educated to help them fulfill their potential. An orphan, who lost her gently-bred life when her parents were killed at sea, she is self-effacing, grateful for the chance to have landed in a good household, afraid of a future that offers little to gently-bred young ladies who don’t have a dowry, and genuinely kind-hearted and honest. However, all to do with the children is Mrs. Baxter’s bailiwick and this spider will do anything to keep the subservient Miss Roberts at her beck and call, even at the cost of her daughters’ future.
The awful malignancy of Mrs. Baxter is subtle—so subtle that her husband doesn’t recognize it. It takes her brother Tom (a bluff and hearty, yet surprisingly vulnerable, Brendan Murray) to awaken Mr. Baxter’s eyes (a gentle and lonely Craig Houk) to his wife’s perfidy.
Turns out that Tom had escaped, barely, being a mollusc—he says he comes from a line of molluscs and that he must guard against it every day, which is why he decamped four years ago to the energy of America and the West, eventually settling in Colorado.
The play is a battle of wits between Mrs. Baxter and everyone else. During the course of it, you realize how she relishes being a mollusc—it’s her power, a very sad power in truth. There is something very pitiable in such fear of change and living that one resorts to being a mollusc. She too is trapped.
But even molluscs have to face changes in their environments, and this battle of wits for dominion over the status quo will not hold in the end. Tom actually proves adept at using what he can to initiate changes and saving Miss Roberts, even as Miss Roberts dares to dream of more and makes an educated choice.
Mr. Baxter, too, gets some direct feedback from Tom about his complicity; it’s an awakening he takes to heart. Eventually. Change takes time.
This is an excellent cast who play their roles with subtlety and grace.
The show is directed by Jack Sbarbori who is respectful of the material (written by Hubert Henri Davies in 1907), but understands that molluscs still reside among us. He also designed the gorgeous set, which underscores the refined, hot-house air of the household and a certain level of class in England before the Great War. There is a cunningly designed window at the back of the set that looks out at a Grecian statue and a vista of lawn and arbors that speaks of a wider world under a sun of possibilities.
The costumes, designed by Stephanie Mumford, are perfectly of the period and quietly show the class difference between the Baxters and Miss Roberts.
This is a very well-done piece and quietly gets under the skin—you want to see Miss Roberts break free and Mr and Mrs. Baxter awaken from the somnambulance that her very nature has trapped them in. It’s a lovely journey.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15 minute intermission.
“The Mollusc,” produced by Quotidian Theatre Company is at The Writer’s Center, Bethesda, MD, and runs through August 4, 2019. For more information, please click here.