Early Shaw Provides Nourishing Entertainment
Simple and straight forward in form and story, the work is complex in its view of the human condition. The dialogue is replete with witty aphorisms. And, as beautifully realized here by director Lisa Peterson, there is a strong emotional undercurrent which builds to a most involving and moving climax.
The play takes place over the course of one day in the drawing room of a suburban London parsonage, which the well respected Reverend Morell has made into his office.
On this day, the Reverend’s wife, Candida, is returning to the parsonage after having spent some weeks with their children in the country. Along with her is Marchbanks, an 18 year old struggling poet whom Morell has befriended. Unable to control his emotions any longer, Marchbanks reveals to Morell, and eventually to Candida, that he has fallen head over heels in love with her. Morell is shamed into allowing Marchbanks the opportunity to press his case for Candida’s affections.
Shaw’s sparkling dialogue permits each character to put his best foot forward in expressing his point of view. Shaw will eventually reveal that he finds the respected and seemingly warmhearted Morell to be a self centered, pompous windbag. Only the most cynical viewer will see this coming, when Morell tells Marchbanks, “ ... God has given us a world that nothing but our own folly prevents from being a paradise.”
And Shaw clearly relishes it when Candida’s father, a vulgar, exploitative wealthy contractor says to Morell, “one don’t take all a clorgyman(sic) says seriously, or the world couldn’t go on”. Enough - you get the idea.
I did not understand Neil Patel’s set design. It seems clear that it is based on Shaw’s description, quoted in the program, of Candida as a Pre-Raphaelite play (a latter 19th century art movement which found the art of the day to be “frivolous”). It turns the drawing room setting into a vast several story high space, wallpapered a la William Morris (semi-abstract plants and flowers in various shades of green), and has the feel of a dungeon. Is the set’s dreary aura meant to convey Candida’s unhappiness in her situation there? You’ll get no answer here.
The myriad good things about this production could fill several reviews. Director Lisa Peterson has made some excellent choices. The play begins with a voiceover of Shaw’s written description of the setting and characters. It is rich and witty in and of itself. Additionally, it allows Peterson to use voiceover to emphasize an interesting “mystery” at the play’s conclusion.
Michael Siberry’s Morell appears to be considerably older than Kate Forbes' 33 year old Candida. Thus her interest in the teenage poet is made all the more believable. Siberry’s well modulated performance captures the nuances of the role. At the start, he conveys the confident, good natured and morally centered reverend. However, as our eyes become more jaundiced, Siberry peels away layers of Morell’s character in a most moving fashion.
Kate Forbes smoothly conveys both the maturity and primness of the revered clergy wife and mother, and the emerging coquettish object of Marchbanks’ desire. Forbes allows Candida’s complicity in Marchbank’s arousal to dawn on us slowly.
Perhaps best of all is the Marchbanks of Jeffrey Carlson. Shaw’s 18 year old poet is something of an impetuous fool who delivers physical comedy as he bursts into flights of passion. It is important that he not be so foolish that we do not believe that Candida could take him seriously.
Confidently, Carlson provides all the laughs needed when indulging his flights of fancy. On the other hand, Carlson’s Marchbanks knows that he is giddily silly, and manages to always contain himself whenever Candida enters.
Finally, as Carlson explicitly reveals his feelings about her to Candida, he moves us as his lips quiver, opening and shutting twice before he can speak.
As Candida’s father, Robert Langdon Lloyd provides a full measure of laughter. His Burgess is appropriately a successful cousin of Alfred P. Doolittle.
Polly Lee as Proserpine, Morell’s typist, is extremely amusing. Michael Milligan provides her with a fine foil as Lexy, Morell’s prelate.
Shaw would go on to write even better, more major plays. However, Candida ranks pretty high up among the 50 plays in his canon.
This is the smartest and most moving Candida that I’ve ever seen. Grab it!
Candida continues performances through April 11 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-ARTS (2787); online www.mccarter.org
Candida by George Bernard Shaw; directed by Lisa Peterson; Cast (in order of appearance): Polly Lee (Proserpine); Michael Siberry (Morell); Michael Milligan (Lexy); Robert Langdon Lloyd (Burgess); Kate Forbes (Candida); Jeffrey Carlson (Marchbanks)