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The Summerhouse in April: No man's land 

Jean Sterret examines the women of war

A keen sense of history may be Jean Sterrett's strongest virtue, at least based on the Buckhead playwright's work produced this summer. Essential Theatre recently presented her death-row drama Fix Me So I Can Stand, a nuanced portrait of racial attitudes and injustice in South Georgia during the 1970s. Curly Willow Productions is currently staging The Summerhouse in April, set at a successful Australian farm named "Waratah" during and after World War I.

Sterrett was born and raised in Australia, and The Summerhouse in April conveys a native's appreciation of the culture, such as the popularity of Mahjong as a parlor game or the way Mother (Sheila Allen) speaks of England as "home," even though she's never been there. The play also conveys the magnitude of difference between the pre-war fighting spirit and the horrific, seemingly pointless death toll. Young soldiers declare, "Good news – we're going to the front!" without irony. (The Australian film Gallipoli, starring a young Mel Gibson, offers a similarly grim perspective).

Summerhouse captures telling details both small and large, but Curly Willow Productions seldom grasps the play's emotional intentions. Although book-ended with post-war scenes, most of the play takes place during a flashback when Isabel (Laine Binder) visits Waratah with her fiance, Jamie (Jeremy Harrington), simultaneous with the military furlough of her brother and a friend. Isabel flirts with a soldier (Bradley Bergeron) while Jamie finds a kindred spirit with Isabel's literary-minded sister Geraldine (Kelly Criss).

Geraldine seems meant to provide the heart of The Summerhouse in April, since she does the flashing back and dwells on the poetry that gives the play its title. She's like an Anton Chekhov or Jane Austen character who keeps her feelings unspoken, but Criss and Harrington hold so much in check that the roles seem simply passive. Almost against our will, our sympathies shift to Isabel, who may be an overbearing, unfaithful, motor-mouthed social climber, but at least seems eager to embrace life.

Sterrett directs the play herself, which may be part of the problem; perhaps another pair of eyes could have brought out the thematic implications more forcefully. The pacing issues and sudden, jarring flashbacks between the scenes frequently step on the action, blunting the impact of important scenes. Nevertheless, The Summerhouse in April articulates one of the eternal lessons of war: The toll of battle weighs heavily on the mothers, sisters and wives at home no less than the men in the trenches.

The Summerhouse in April. Through Aug. 5. $15-$18. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Curly Willow Productions, Theatre Decatur, 430 W. Trinity Place, Decatur. 404-373-3904. www.theatredecatur.com.

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