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Candida

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Candida
Melissa Errico
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If you need a woman who must appear capable of not just turning all men’s heads but also straightening out their spines - which you do for George Bernard Shaw’s Candida - you’d be challenged to do better than Melissa Errico. The statuesque actress may be best known to connoisseurs of musicals ranging from revivals of My Fair Lady and Finian’s Rainbow (and One Touch of Venus at Encores!) to new shows like Amour and Dracula, but to consider her nothing more is to ignore her delightful gifts as a cunning stage presence who can support a show on only her charm. Which, in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s new mounting of Candida, she must.

From the instant she appears halfway through the first act of the production, which has been directed and designed by Tony Walton, she lives up to exactly the precepts Shaw himself laid down. “Well built, well nourished,” he described her, with “serene brow, courageous eyes, and well set mouth and chin [that] signify largeness of mind and dignity of character.” It’s vital that you see and believe all that about Candida from the outset, for so much of her character is defined by what her husband Morell (Ciarán O’Reilly) and the adoring, considerably younger poet Marchbanks (Sam Underwood) say about her - she must have her say even before she can get one word out.

And Errico does. Bustled and girdled up tightly but with no hint of matronliness, she moves with the intense intention of a woman who knows the rules and limitations society has imposed on her. As the silent controlling partner in Morell’s existence as a clergyman and professional preacher, she must manipulate things from the shadows while standing in the light. Errico’s crisp line delivery and vaguely shadowy (or at least suspicious) affectionate glowers suggest from the beginning that Candida knows her role and is playing it to perfection, and won’t let anyone dictate otherwise. This, of course, helps out tremendously when Morell and Marchbanks force the show to become exactly that as they vie for the affections they think can only be accorded one of them.

But if Errico fulfills her end of the bargain, the others aren’t quite so giving. The face-off between O’Reilly’s highly aloof and dispassionate Morell and Underwood’s jittery Marchbanks does not exactly steep the play in tension; you never doubt whom Candida will eventually choose, even if the reasons she describes are not the ones O’Reilly and Underwood present. Neither actor makes a sufficiently advanced case for his character’s claim, which makes their continual jostling through much of Act II and all of Act III a bit underwhelming. That Underwood never seems to delight, or believe in, the hackneyed verse that should fully define Marchbanks (he’s 18, Candida is 33), only exacerbates the problem.

Further imbalance is found in the supporting performers, with Josh Grisetti too obviously pandering as Morell’s hot-blooded but cold-talented young colleague and Xanthe Elbrick as the pent-up typist who typifies - but can’t herself understand - the precise reasons men will always prefer Candida over her. Brian Murray brings his typical blustery verve to Candida’s father, Mr. Burgess, which is unquestionably amusing but a bit off-kilter for a man who should both present a solid third alternative to the two men warring over his daughter and prove where she got her pluck.

Walton’s cramped but homey sitting-room set and colorful but unexcitingly Victorian costumes are just right for filling out the visuals. But both his staging and his character work would benefit from a deeper, grander treatment rather than one that just skirts the surface of the issues of religion, socialism, and marital obligation that are the heart of one of Shaw’s more uncharacteristically romantic and passionate works.

Errico embodies both those traits and a lot more, in a performance that, whether it’s centering on coddling Morell, chastising Marchbanks, or even just basking in the glow of semi-hypnosis while lying on a chaise and playing with a fireplace poker. She looks, sounds, and behaves exactly like what Candida must: a woman every man wants and that every woman wants to be. But, ultimately, she belongs to herself and will make her own choices. Walton’s Candida would be better if every other character could marshal that same kind of theatrical independence.


Candida
Through April 18
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.irishrep.org