Ayckbourn's `Woman in Mind' takes imaginative turns

Woman in Mind Play by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Lynne Meadow. The stark sadness underlying the comic surface emerges gradually yet inevitably in Alan Ayckbourn's ``Woman in Mind.'' A British playwright noted for perceiving the pain beneath the laughter, the hurt amid the hilarity, Mr. Ayckbourn explores the most desperate extremes of the human psyche in the deftly performed new work at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

``Woman in Mind'' begins almost farcically as Susan (Stockard Channing) regains consciousness in her garden after having struck her head with a carelessly stepped-on rake. Attended by cheerful doctor Bill (Simon Jones), she is soon being comforted by a serenely devoted family, all clad in white. But they prove to be the fantasy figures of her still confused mental state.

With a flick of the playwright's imagination, they are succeeded by the actual members of the household: prosaic cleric husband Gerald (Remak Ramsay) and tiresome sister-in-law Muriel (Patricia Conolly). Gerald is writing the history of the local parish since 1389. Muriel's determined domesticity is matched by her disastrous cooking (Earl Grey tea in the fines herbes omelette, etc.).

Susan deals ironically with her domestic world. She takes for granted the boredom of her life and the doldrums into which her marriage has fallen. But she resents what she regards as Gerald's role in alienating their son, Rick (John David Cullum), who joined a commune that forbade verbal communication with family members. Abandoning his vow of silence, Rick returns after a two-year absence to announce that he has married and is accompanying his wife to Thailand.

The comic aspects of Susan's crisis acquire a more serious aspect upon her discovery that she cannot dismiss the figments of her hallucinations at will. Her fantasies climax on an ominously stormy night as Ayckbourn and his collaborators transform the garden into a florally decked wedding scene involving all the surrounding characters (bizarrely costumed by Ann Roth).

Miss Channing traces the course of Susan's decline in a performance that is initially funny and increasingly touching. But there is little in her behavior as first encountered to anticipate the indictments leveled against Susan by her puzzled husband and resentful son (well acted by Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Cullum). As the members of her fantasy family, Daniel Gerroll, Tracy Pollan, and Michael Countryman disport themselves with the period-comedy touch indicated in the writing. John Lee Beatty's scenery, as lighted for mood changes by Pat Collins, eases the play through its surprise transitions.

``Woman in Mind'' is scheduled to run through March 13.

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