The Silver Cord
Peccadillo Theater Company
Sidney Howard's name may not ring many bells today, but in 1925 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his play They Knew What They Wanted. He also wrote the ultimate exposé of smother love, The Silver Cord, which was a hit in 1926 with Laura Hope Crews in the lead role of Mrs. Phelps, the incestuous mother of two very dim sons. The play was condensed into a movie in 1933, and it was still a corker of a melodrama with an unforgettably hysterical performance from Crews at its center. Judith Anderson played Mrs. Phelps on early television, but The Silver Cord has not often been revived.
It was however brought back in the 90s by the Peccadillo Theater Company, a troupe dedicated to putting on neglected American plays; their production featured Dale Carman, a male actor in female costume, in the central role. Peccadillo has again revived The Silver Cord (through July 14), 18 years after their first go at it—and again with Carman as Mrs. Phelps. Anyone who fears that this is just stunt casting will be relieved the moment he steps onto the stage. You forget almost immediately that you're watching a male actor play a female role because Carman inhabits Mrs. Phelps with such delicacy, such insight, such control that it's obvious he's lived with the part for a long time and knows all its levels, all its traps, all its opportunities. He makes a case for Mrs. Phelps, especially in the first act, when she continually takes umbrage at remarks made by Christina (Victoria Mack), a scientist who has just married her son David (Thomas Matthew Kelley), and Hester (Caroline Kaplan), who is engaged to her son Robert (Wilson Bridges).
This is a difficult play to put over without getting laughs you don’t necessarily want, and this cast, with the help of director Dan Wackerman and some truly sumptuous 1920s costumes by Gail Cooper-Hecht, reactivate all the playable moments in this juicy material while guiding us over aspects of the text that seem dated—particularly the way that Robert is coded as a mother-dominated homosexual who has a flair for interior decoration yet still weirdly longs for “fast” women. The combination of this play with a male actor playing Mrs. Phelps would seem to promise an evening of pure camp, but Carman and company take The Silver Cord very seriously. Any inappropriate laughs from the audience soon died away as Carman burrowed deeper and deeper into this woman’s sick desire for her sons and her increasingly shameless manipulations of them coupled with an all-out war on the women who are taking them away from her. The pleasures to be had from this play and this production are old-fashioned pleasures, maybe, but this is a piece of theater history that has been restored with great love, respect and skill.