When great artists die, does ownership of their art pass onto the family or into the public sphere? This is the question posed by Alison’s House, Susan Glaspell’s Pulitzer prizewinning play, sensitively revived at the Orange Tree by director Jo Combes, following a spirited production of Glaspell’s Chains of Dew last year.
The Alison of the title is Alison Stanhope, a celebrated poet of Emily Dickinson mould, twenty years dead as the play opens. It is New Year’s Eve 1899 – the final day of the 19th century – and the Stanhope family are packing up the house Alison shared with her sister Agatha to be sold onto developers.
Old, ill and confused, Agatha (Georgine Anderson) is reluctant to leave, but her well-intentioned brother John (Christoper Ravenscroft) believes he is acting for the best, despite the efforts of his two sons and a visiting newspaper reporter to disrupt the task. Everyone seems to want a piece of Alison, be it a teapot, an anecdote for a college essay or, most elusive of all, an unpublished poem.
With the sudden arrival of daughter Elsa, banished from the family for her affair with a married man, an already tense situation stretches to breaking point. But while the heart and soul that characterised the poet initially seem absent from her family, the emotional sacrifices the other Stanhopes have made are slowly revealed.
When Agatha entrusts to Elsa a pouch of Alison’s private poems, there ensues an agonising tug of war for her memory, morals and ultimately, her artistic legacy. Held together by a stirling performance from Ravenscoft as the sympathetic yet flawed patriarch, the cast are near pitch-perfect, with Gráinne Keenan surprisingly mature in her professional debut opposite the moving veteran Anderson.
Forward thinking as ever, Glaspell’s success is in couching her fairly radical artistic manifesto in a family drama that, while sombre, pulses with subtle, shifting dynamics. And as the clock chimes in a new century for her characters, she even leaves us with a glimmer of light for the future.