By Tiffany Raymond, PhD
South Park Theatre Company presents Peter Shaffer’s 1987 play, Lettice & Lovage. The play traces Lettice Douffet (Helga Terre), a tour guide who trends towards exaggeration after she is assigned to Fustian House, the “gloomiest house” she has ever seen. Shaffer originated the role of Lettice for Maggie Smith – a role that earned her a Tony. Terre is undaunted by her predecessor and is mesmerizingly energetic, seemingly born to play the flamboyant Douffet.
The play opens with Douffet giving a factual tour of Fustian House. Director Art DeConciliis has the seven gathered tourists shiver and yawn, shifting their sluggard stances. It’s infinitely relatable. We have all had our Fustian House moment. I was immediately transported back to a 45-minute walking tour of Sundance, Wyoming that stretched into two hours. A notable feat for a five-block town with a population of a thousand.
Like any performer, Douffet is not immune to the reactions of her audience. We get to witness four sequential iterations of her tour over time. Each performance ratchets up the drama. She transforms the tour from routine to riveting through both story and gesture.
Version one’s “grand staircase” becomes a “staircase of aggrandizement” by round three. Former dullard homeowner Tom Fustian is now floating “like feathered mercury” over seven stairs. He elegantly forestalls Queen Victoria from tumbling as she trips on her dress of diamonds – a dress that was made of pearls from a sultan in the prior telling. DeConciliis directs Terre to settle on the staircase by the final round, a mark of a storyteller ready to launch a long tale and one that allows her to directly channel the aggrandizement.
The transformation is not without effect. The tourists shift from bored to bravo with each iteration. On the third retelling, a gentleman asks for references to support her story. He is practically booed by fellow tourists who defiantly defend Douffet. Her unsupervised role as historical tourguide gives her carte blanche. It’s a reminder of the social acceptance of power dynamics. In the domain of Fustian House, her position of authority imbues her as an unassailable expert.
The final round brings in Lotte Schoen (Joyce Miller) who, like Douffet, works for the Preservation Trust. Miller captures a dour seriousness in Schoen’s character that is emphasized by her belted grey trench coat (costume design by Rob Hockenberry), a metaphor for the tightly wound and controlled Schoen. DeConciliis has Miller furtively taking notes, cataloging Douffet’s flights of fancy and factual errors.
Schoen calls Douffet into her office. While Schoen doesn’t delight in firing Douffet, she does delight in restoring a sense of order and what is correct and accurate.
Schoen represents the rigidity of left-brain logic. Douffet is the creative, free-spirited, imaginative right brain. Schoen’s world view of leading with facts is correct. After all, that is the expectation one has for a historical tour. Douffet defends her position by saying she is “dedicated to lighting up the truth.”
Douffet is also right. A story is what makes facts memorable. It’s why we may need to sing the childhood ditty, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” in order to remember the start date of his voyage. Proof points and facts that aren’t tied to a narrative lack punch and memorability.
Ultimately, Shaffer shows us that neither left nor right brain can thrive in isolation. Schoen is too straitlaced, and Douffet strays too far from truth as she gets swept up in her storytelling drama. One ultimately needs both Lettice and Lotte. It is in the balance of the two where one finds harmony, and South Park’s production finds that harmony.
Lettice & Lovage runs through September 9, 2023 at South Park Theatre, at the corner of Brownsville Road and, Corrigan Dr, South Park Township, PA 15129. For more information, click here.