“Gaudy Night” at Taproot

This should be a tension building, spellbinding theatrical experience—mystery in a woman’s college at Oxford, malicious goings-on, a sweet youngish thing caught in the middle of it all. Sadly, it seems instead to plod along, pleasant enough but not gripping.

The story, set at Oxford in the 1930s, centers on Harriet Vane, former student and now minor celebrity who is invited back for the annual “gaudy night” celebration. She finds herself caught up in an unsavory series of events that the Dons (all women of course) wish to keep from the public eye and which Harriet is determined to explain.

This adaptation by Frances Limoncelli of the Dorothy Sayers novel does offer some interesting perspectives on the feminist movement. The Dons, all but one old maids, are convinced that married life precludes a life of the mind. They have had to fight vigorously to achieve their academic success at the cost of eliminating the familial and sexual pleasures of wifedom.

This is a period of chaste women. Lord Peter Wimsey, a renowned detective, loves Harriet, has consistently asked her to marry him, but despite her affection for him she can’t accept because to do so would be to give up her independence and her intellectual pursuits. As a result they do no more than shake hands with one another.

Alyson Scadron Branner is affecting as Harriet capturing her insecurities as well as her determination. And Jeff Berryman is an elegant, self-assured Wimsey, very British, very reserved and able with great difficulty to restrain his feelings for Harriet. There are a couple of lovely scenes where the two go punting on the Thames, moving languidly through the lapping waters. But passion! Sex! Out of the question.

The women in supporting roles are appropriately frumpy, fusty spinsters, convinced that their choice of an intellectual life over an emotional life was a good one. Beware the widows among them!

Lovely cello and stringed quartet music provide background ambiance for this slow moving look back at life before Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

Through Oct. 20 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, (206 781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org).

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