I seem to have attended Springs Eternal a few days after the rest of London's theatre critics, and there are at least a dozen other reviews available online. The anxiety of trying to compete with these and the temptation to cherry-pick their more perspicacious opinions has frozen me at the keyboard for around 3 hours. It's one of those hideous moments when as a reviewer you stare at the screen quite certain anything you write is simply going to vanish into the vacuum of the internet never to be read or acknowledged – unless, of course, you say something disastrously asinine, in which case it will hang around forever preventing any prospect of either future employment or critical acceptance: the flipside to those sustaining daydreamy moments in which we internet-nobodies haply imagine ourselves anthologised beside Michael Billington or Kenneth Tynan or Dorothy Parker. 

This kind of anxiety (and, incidentally, the knotted, considered, shouty-yet-conservative prose it tends to yield) usually divides modern audiences and writers of all forms from most populist political writing conceived before the birth of the internet. And yet, curiously, in the case Susan Glaspell's play – receiving its belated debut after 60 years – I find a premonition of just this kind of anxiety. It is also a bold choice to open Sam Walter's final season at the Orange Tree theatre; a curiousity – flawed certainly, but not without its own disturbing power.

Written in 1943, Glaspell's drawing room drama portrays an educated New York family coming to terms with the war in the Pacific. Owen Higgenbothem (Stuart Fox, whose intelligent performance frequently exceeds the wit of the lines he's given) is the family patriach and self-flagellating author of a Wellsian tract entitled "The World of Tomorrow". His retreat from public life and popular writing leads him to clash with those around him; including his sane and decent second wife Margaret (Julia Hills), his vapid, self-pitying first wife Harry (Miranda Foster), his conscientious objector son Jumbo (Jeremy Lloyd), his moralistic maid Mrs Soames (Auriol Smith) and his impatient doctor (Antony Eden), himself recuperating after being wounded on active service.

Meanwhile, a baffling screwball romantic subplot involving his ward Dottie (Lydia Larson) and his first wife's second husband Stewie (David Antrobus) dips in and out of the action to lengthen the running time to something approaching three hours. The performances, if not always the accents, are grounded, tender and thoughtful, and I would agree with the critic who suggested they alone are worth travelling many miles to see. Meanwhile, Sam Walter's unfussy direction retains the humour and dissipates many of the play's more portentous moments. 

Nevertheless, Springs Eternal is a curate's egg, and it's difficult not to feel the anticipated gaze of a wartime audience warped its construction. Alongside the usual pressures to entertain, there's a tremendously earnest desire to reach fair conclusions without applying political dogma, and an awareness of the limitations of the dramatic form – both in what kind of arguments can be, and should be, communicated.

And yet the play is strongest and most passionate in its moments of despair, as well as least convincing in its attempts to a reach an optimistic conclusion – where the antidote to war-weariness emerges as the triple injunction to acknowledge manifest beauty, enjoy work for its own sake and drink more tea. The drama is confused, convoluted and even constipated, circling attitudes it would prefer not to articulate, enacting but not committing to its own misgivings – most obviously pulling its punches when we learn the maid's son Freddy, who we are told has been inspired to enlist after reading Owen's book, has been captured rather than killed in the fighting.

Wars exacerbate our sense of helplessness; civilians particularly are made to feel like outsiders and to assume positions they may not believe in. The conclusion that we should just get on with life and worry only about the things we can control may be irrefutable, but is not much use to those who prefer spiritual dissent. I was reminded of the arguments that fizz below the line of newspaper comment pieces where the pedants and blowhards thunder helplessly. Inadvertently perhaps, the play captures this sense of compromise before overwhelming events, by seeming itself so compromised. It is perhaps less interesting as art than as social history, but as the latter there is much here to chew on.

Springs Eternal, at Orange Tree TheatreJimmy Kelly reviews Springs Eternal at the Orange Tree Theatre.4