Two sets of characters are introduced at the beginning of The Autumn Garden, Lillian Hellman's achingly beautiful 1951 play, and the one she considered her favorite. Some are aware of life's painful realities others blissfully in denial. By the end, even the sunniest belle in the Gulf of Mexico summer resort where the play is set is struggling to hold on to her illusions as fall beckons and this privileged pack of Southerners stagger into their autumn years.
Director David Jones' stirring production, which closes the Williamstown Theatre Festival's season, may have little heightened dramatic action, but it's a character-rich smorgasbord for the accomplished stage veterans in the cast, especially the women, who bring a skillful ease to their roles. Allison Janney gives a heartbreaking, nuanced performance as Constance Tuckerman, the just-getting-by proprietress eagerly awaiting the return of her former beau, charming slime-ball painter Nicholas Denery (John Benjamin Hickey), who left her two decades ago to marry rich gal Nina (Jessica Hecht).
Constance never married nor got over Nick, despite the attentions of their friend Ned (Rufus Collins), who often hits the bottle with Griggs (Brian Kerwin), a retired general longing to divorce his jumpy wife, Rose (Maryann Plunkett). In a plotline resembling Tennessee Williams, Carrie (Cynthia Mace) frets over her gay son (something no one openly acknowledges), Frederick (Eric Murdoch), who's engaged to Constance's French niece, Sophie (Mamie Gummer). Carrie's crusty mother, Mary (Elizabeth Franz), meanwhile, the eldest of the group, is the one with the fortitude to see everyone for what they truly are.
Among the ensemble, Franz engenders the most laughs with her dead-on observations, and Gummer proves that a propensity for accents runs in her family. (She's Meryl Streep's daughter.) This forgotten Hellman gem is a stunner worth remembering.