When We are Married is a British comedy in which three couples who believe they are jointly celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary learn that none of their marriages have ever been legally legitimate. Written by J.B. Priestley in 1938, the play moves beyond the initial scandal of pre-marital behavior being conducted under the assumption that it was post-marital to the heart of the three relationships on display. The Denver Center Theatre Company’s production, which opens this week, features Jane and Larry Paulsen. The Paulsens have been a couple for more than 30 years, but play husband and wife to other actors in this production.
One potential danger of this production, written in 1938 and set in 1907, is that the core theme surrounds the implication of not being legally married. In an age where few of the traditional milestones of marriage (sharing a home, starting a family) are actually reserved for those who are legally married, does this central premise still deliver a punch? Luckily, the heart of the play isn’t the public consequences of skipping out on a legality that is no longer strictly followed. Instead, the play is about “what may run through our minds if we discovered that we weren’t in fact married to our spouse,” says Jeanne Paulson, who plays Maria Helliwell. “Each couple gets an opportunity to see themselves as independent people, to rediscover who they are separate from their spouse.”
This theme is just one example of how relationships today might not have changed as much as we might guess over the last century. “The gulf between men and women is certainly wider than we like to credit ourselves with,” says Larry Paulsen, who plays Albert Parker. “We’re now subjectively certain, of course, that we of the 21st century are more aware, more in tune with our partners. Well, so are the Helliwells, Parkers and Soppits.” Jeanne agrees that the subject matter is much more modern than it first seems. “My first impression was that it hits, rather profoundly, what happens in long term relationships, and it does so with a lot of humor and compassion,” she says.
A couple since 1974, Jeanne and Larry are both overjoyed to be working with each other on the same stage, even though they do not play opposite one another in When We Are Married. “We rarely get to work in the same THEATRE, let alone in the same show,” says Jeanne. “At first I found myself reacting to something as Maria but looking at Larry to share it with him like he’s my husband in the play, and I had to remind myself that John Hutton is my husband here.” Working apart has become such a norm that years ago, Larry was worried when the couple were cast in the DCTC’s productions of You Can’t Take It With You and Pride and Prejudice. “I remember being surprised and glad, but thinking, ‘But who am I going to call now to share what happened in rehearsal today? And what will we have to talk about?’ ”
Fortunately, this was wasted anxiety, and the couple remains grateful for any opportunity to work with one another.
Productions of When We Are Marriedare more rare in the U.S. (compared with Britain), but the theme of re-discovering your partnership and re-choosing your partner are those that are bound to touch any audience. Larry indicated that while in rehearsal for the play, he’s most taken by “Priestley’s humanity, his affectionate sense of the absurdity of what might happen to human beings shaken out of their familiar, comfortable assumptions.” Ultimately, this deep humanity is what keeps the actors invested and the audience along for the ride. “These are real people with all their complexities set in a comic situation,” says Jeanne. “I think we could play it for months and still keep mining the relationships, just as an audience member could see it several times and find something new each time.”