Director Matthew Reeder makes a compelling case in a program note for the legacy of the late James Saunders. The British playwright of the 1950s and ’60s was described in The Guardian’s 2004 obituary as a peer of Harold Pinter and a major influence on Tom Stoppard, but he never developed the international recognition enjoyed by those writers. BackStage is billing its production of Saunders’s A Scent of Flowers, first produced in 1964 with a cast featuring a young Ian McKellen, as the Midwest premiere.
If only Reeder’s production made a similarly persuasive case onstage. Saunders’s atmospheric play centers on the recently deceased Zoe (Jess Berry), a delicate young girl who, it soon becomes clear, has taken her own life. Her possible motives are revealed over three acts, as Zoe’s family members—a loving, perhaps in-love stepbrother (Patrick De Nicola), a cold but caring stepmother (Mary Anne Bowman), an ineffective father (Ron Butts) and a doting bachelor uncle (Michael Pacas)—mourn her passing. They also address her directly, as Zoe seems to drift in and out of physical presence at the funeral parlor, church and grave site. (Act III echoes Our Town, with Zoe watching her own burial.)
As his characters float dreamily through scenes in the present, in flashback and in murky limbos in between, Saunders’s professed disdain for convention reads more like a lack of discipline. And his pop psychology, casting Zoe as a child made fragile by divorce, just feels dated. Despite committed work by Berry, with strong support from De Nicola and Pacas, I’d put Saunders back on the shelf.