June 20, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
Andres Cato’s intuitive direction of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, now playing engagingly at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, gives one the uncanny feeling that in a previous incarnation he moved in Shaw’s world, perhaps hoping he had been swapped in the cradle and was somehow Shaw’s son.
In each of the Shaw plays that Cato has recently directed at the BTF, including Heartbreak House, and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, he has caught the precise tone that the wily playwright intended.
Candida, following close on the heels of Shaw’s Arms and a Man, is an uproarious comedy involving mad-house physical action that escalates to farcical levels for two and a half fast-paced, hilarious acts before, in mid-act three, the entire tone changes with the three main (warring) characters in a scene in which pace, tempo, and mood totally change and Shaw has his say about a world in which Ibsen’s Doll House is turned upside down.
The plot (the action of which all occurs on one day in the Victorian world of 1894) begins innocently enough. The Reverend James Morell, (Michael Gill) confident in his role as beloved pastor and orator awaits the return of his wife Candida (Jayne Atkinson) from a three week absence in the country, shared with her children and a shy young poet, Eugene Marchbanks (Finn Wittrock), whom they have both befriended.
The day should be a glorious one. It’s glories are soon shattered when the young poet as soon as he is alone with Morell announces his love for Candida. And challenges him for her. As the conflict escalates, Eugene demands that there must be a showdown in which Candida must choose, and Morell’s character is shaken by a situation he found at first ludicrous but which threatens his total confidence in his world.
And swirling through the day until the evening when matters finally can be faced and settled are the presence of Morell’s secretary Proserprine Garnett (Samantha Soule), madly and secretly in love with her employer, as lovingly typing his letters as she is helping wash up in the scullery.
Also erupting unexpectedly into the day is Candida’s father, a bombastic, unscrupulous businessman of incredible girth, Mr. Burgess (David Schramm), who is a trial run for a future Shaw creation – (Eliza’s father in Pygmalian) – who can only determine that all occupants of the house are mad and attempt to pacify them. Equally bewildered by the turbulence of the household, but adding to its confusion, is Reverend Alexander Mill (Jeremiah Wiggins), Morell’s assistant.
Central to all the confusion, and at first amused by it, eventually forced to indignantly end it, with a terse, “I am up for auction it seems,” is the suburb Candida, one of Shaw’s greatest creations (whom I am grateful, momentarily, to be old enough to have first seen played by Katherine Cornell). Atkinson embodies the role beautifully from her first glad return in act one to her bemused but half-hurt understanding the needs and strengths of both men as the play ends.
Gill evolves from the handsome, self-confident husband, into a shaken, but possibly a bit wiser husband whom one feels will recover once the shocking day is behind him. A subtly played role.
Miss Prossy, the adoring secretary, will appear on the morrow possibly with a hangover from the champagne that contributed to her marvelous character betrayal in act three.
And Eugene, the young poet, who after all is still only 18, will go off into the night secure in the belief that a genius such as he may be clumsy in the drawing room (in this production perching bird-like on furniture and swooping about a bit too unbelievably), but that the romance of being a poet is secure in his heart. For all his youth, he has been manly, if insecure, in drawing rooms, and vocally he has handled his side with conviction. Like a pre-Raphaelite hero, he vanishes into the night.
As for Candida’s father, he is a pompous windbag and will never change. He is as self-satisfied as we are in his handling of his role.
Hugh Landwehr has transformed the BTF stage into a handsome Victorian living room, one that scrupulously includes each item Shaw calls for, down to the child’s chair by the hearth (so needed for subtle character definition at times). And, of course, the wall paper is William Morris.
Olivera Gajic’s costumes are perfect from the high-top shoes of the men to the apron Candida dons to clean lamps.
We are so fortunate here in the Berkshires that the BTF brings Shaw to us and that in this summer of gasoline woes it is not necessary to drive to Canada for superb Shavian productions since we have a such joyous one here in our own backyard.