Romantic comedy “Diana of Dobson’s” wears its age well

Camila Pinero as Diana gets advice from Mrs. Cantelupe played by Gabriyel Thomas.

By DAVID DUPONT

BG Independent News

Don’t be fooled by “Diana of Dobson’s.”
The production of the 1908 play opens with some period song and dance.
Dressed in turn of the previous century finery Anna Parchem and Geoff Stephenson invite us to go to the music hall. They deliver their invitation with a campy enthusiasm touched by cynicism.

Something quite deeper and more satisfying awaits behind the curtain.
“Diana of Dobson’s” by Cicely Hamilton will be presented by the Bowling Green State University Department of Theatre and Film opening tonight (Nov. 16) at 8 p.m. and running through Sunday in the Donnell Theatre in the Wolfe Center for the Arts. See details at end of story.

Diana reads letter informing her of her inheritance.

Once the curtain rises, the glitter disappears. We find ourselves in the stark dorm of the shop girls who work at Dobson’s. As they disrobe for the night the young women played by Laura Holman, Lorna Jane Patterson, Hennessy Bevins, and Megan Kome talk about their lives and their troublesome co-worker Diana Massingberd (Camila Pinero).
She’s a rebel who bristles at the petty rules and cruel economies of the company. She gets “five bob a week for my life,” and even then the company fines the employees for minor infractions. Diana has many of those.

Diana wasn’t always in these straits. Her father was a country doctor, and she helped him until his death. He left her penniless.

To her, even worse than being a fool “is being a pauper.”

Her attitude not only grates on her employers but on her fellow workers, who take her complaints about their lives personally. Then Diana receives a letter informing her that she has received an inheritance from distant cousin of 300 pounds.

This is not an inconsiderable amount. (The script does well to put this in perspective.)

Geoff Stephenson and Anna Parchem open the show with a musical number.

Despite the advice of the good-hearted Kitty (Patterson), Diana decides she will spend it all within a month, living as lavishly as she can so at least she knows what that feels like. Her first stop will be Paris to buy clothes. Pinero delivers her argument for taking this course with such conviction, doing justice to the nuance of Hamilton’s lines, that this seems like an expression of free will, not a frivolous whim.

This is fluff, we see now, with a philosophical back bone. Back bone is what Diana has.

We find her next at a Swiss mountain resort enjoying the mountains and the company of Captain Victor Bretherton (Jarod Mariani). Bretherton is a scion of what he later calls “the ornamental class.” His military career, in these years before, World War I, is treated as an indulgence, and an expensive one. He cannot live within his means of 600 pounds a year and sponges off his aunt Mrs. Cantelupe (Gabriyel Thomas). The haughty, scheming aunt is determined to get her nephew to marry Diana, whom she comes to believe has a significant income. For his part, Mariani plays Bretherton as clueless and entitled, yet charming in the way he is besotted by Diana.

Jarod Mariani with Gabriyel Thomas.

This could have been played as a comedy of manners, with Diana failing to fit in with the upper class. While there’s elements of that, Diana keeps her deceptions to a minimum. She creates a late husband, from whom she inherited her money, but admits that she once led a hard life. As she notes in this social circle it is acceptable to marry for money, but not to work for it.

Also vying for her affections is the self-made businessman Sir Jabez Grinley (Adam Hensley), who is seen by the others as a bounder, and by Diana as a representative of the business class who oppresses people like her. His rags to riches tale is belied by his current willingness to exploit others who have not prospered.

The class lines are sharply and comically drawn with Mrs. Whyte-Fraser (Kelly Dunn) drawing laughs for her affectations. Also scoring with comic characterizations are Fallon Smyl and Harmon Andrews.

As this plays out Parchem and Stephenson, accompanied by pianist Jared Dorotiak, appear between acts to sing sentimental musical hall songs that reflect on the action.

Even as the play winds to its inevitable happy ending, the social commentary remains pointed. We come to care enough about these characters that we wonder what life beyond the final curtain holds for them. These thoughts come accompanied by a jaunty musical hall tune.

Tickets & times

“Diana of Dobson’s” will be on the Donnell stage Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets in advance are $15, $10 for seniors, and $5 for students. All tickets $20 in advance. Tickets are available online at bgsu.edu/arts or by calling 419-372-8171.

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