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The View from Next Door PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 04 February 2003 18:00
Before the first rehearsal of Alison’s House, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Though I had already read Davenport native Susan Glaspell’s script and endured six hours of auditions, my experiences as stage manager were just beginning. Peers warned me I was about to dedicate most of my spare time without much reward, but the opportunity to be involved with a main-stage production at Augustana was too good to pass up.

Alison’s House opens at Augustana College the weekend of February 7 after almost eight weeks of rehearsals, at least four nights every week. I will have seen the show performed more than 30 times by the first night of its run. But I’m far from tired of the 1931 Pulitzer Prize winner.

Susan Glaspell was born in Davenport in 1882. The setting of Alison’s House is also “in the Midwest – somewhere along the Mississippi River.” The events of Alison’s House center on the fictional Stanhope family’s discovery in the process of selling their house of the poetry written by their renowned and deceased relative Alison. Alison’s House has been said to shed light on the mysteries of Emily Dickinson’s life and family, but it also arguably offers insight into the playwright’s own scandalous life.

Much like Dickinson (and like Alison and Elsa Stanhope), Susan Glaspell fell in love with a married man, in her case stage director George Cram Cook. Poetry aside, the main conflict in Alison’s House is between father Stanhope, the patriarch, and his daughter, Elsa, who left home to live with a married man.

Though the play has a happy conclusion (which I won’t give away), Glaspell’s life didn’t have the ending she hoped for. Her mother turned Susan out of their home once she became involved with Cook, and the family relationships were never reconciled. (Glaspell and Cook were instrumental in the development of the Provincetown Players, which launched the career of Eugene O’Neill.) Susanne Kepley, Augustana’s dramaturg for Alison’s House, said people in the Quad Cities frequently spoke of the scandal. She also found a 1970s newspaper clipping that noted that “old folks … still harp on the dishonor Glaspell caused.”

Though Glaspell brings some of her own life events into the play, she also focuses on the differences between generations. The audience sees the difficulties of passing morals and traditions from the older, conservative generation to the younger, more modern one. Elsa’s behavior was unacceptable to any upper-class family, yet she is the only member of the family who found “true” love. Alison writes of her unfulfilled love in her poems, and even father Stanhope mentions an affair he never pursued.

Being involved on the sidelines of rehearsals has made me feel somewhat like a neighbor looking in on the lives and events unfolding next door. I feel as if I know this fictional family; they face real problems and need real solutions.

And every time I see the scenes worked through, there’s something new to perceive. At first, I had the impression the play was too melodramatic, as audience members might feel after seeing the play once. But after I digested the play’s characters and events, I began to notice the subtext, and the beauty of the underlying emotions that are revealed through the action. The Stanhope family isn’t just dismantling the old house to sell it; they are emotionally torn up about leaving memories of Alison behind. In everything they do, Alison’s spirit lingers, just as with everyone who has lost someone dear to them.

Alison’s House is a unique view on love, tradition, and strength. Though it is set more than a hundred years ago, the themes and the action will still appeal to a contemporary audience. Glaspell’s poetic work is like a song that can be sung again and again – each time filled with a new emotion.

Alison’s House will be performed in Potter Hall at Augustana College on February 7, 8, 13, 14, and 15 at 8 p.m., and on February 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5, with discounts for senior citizens and students. Call the Augustana Ticket Office at (309)794-7306 for tickets.
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