Candida: Early Shaw Staged with Style and Intelligence
Also see Bob's review of Ken Ludwig's The Fox on the Fairway
Candida, the first successfully produced play by George Bernard Shaw, is a simply plotted, pleasant comedy which displays that Shaw burst upon the theatre scene already blessed with his delightful talent for writing in a rarefied area where cleverness and wisdom are delightfully intermingled without one blurring the distinct joys of the other. Additionally, several of the social and political ideas that make Shaw's plays remain relevant to this day are prominently explored. While later Shaw would become more ambitiously complex, weighty, contentious, emotional, and densely hilarious, Candida is a witty charmer which provides an excellent introduction to the plays of one of the great playwrights of the English speaking stage. Happily, the play is particularly well served by the simple, honest staging by David Staller for the Two River Theatre Company.
Staller, a Shaw specialist, has managed to stage readings of all 65 Shaw plays under the banner of Project Shaw, an initiative of the New York based Gingold Theatrical Group where he is the Founder/Artistic Director. His emphasis is appropriately on the text and there is no attempt to artificially heat up the conflicts or emotional displays of either of the coolly genteel, Victorian Morells and the whiny, immature Marchbanks. Staller has staged Candida with grace and an imaginative directorial eye. He brings beauty and emotional resonance to the exquisitely staged final images of this production.
Set in 1896 in the library-sitting room of a vicarage in a comfortable London suburb, Candida presents an uncomfortable but valuable day in the life of 40-year-old Christian Socialist minister and popular lecturer, the Reverend James Morell. Morell has taken into his home one Eugene Marchbanks, a poet in his late adolescence whom he found sleeping on an embankment. Somewhat estranged from his wealthy family, Marchbanks has fallen head over heels for Candida, Morell's 33-year-old wife. On this day, the shaky but romantic and emboldened Marchbanks will seek to steal the very person of the lovely, repressed Candida from the starchy, self important, but sincere and well-intended Morell. The factors that weigh in the determination of Candida's choice, and to have such a choice is most liberating to her, provide the frame for our understanding of the values, mores and expectations of respectable English society, the strictures which they place on personal growth and happiness, and the wrong-headed assumptions on which must of societal thinking and values are based.
Also on hand this day are Candida's brash and venal self-made businessman father, who is seeking to end his estrangement from his daughter and son-in-law in order to further an opportunity for a shady and profitable deal, and two foolish admirers of the self adoring Reverend Morell: Miss Proserpine Garnett, his secretary-amanuensis who wastes her emotions on her jealousy of Candida and distress at anything uncomplimentary said about Morell; and the young curate Alexander (Lexy) Mill who tries fruitlessly to emulate Morell.
Steven Skybell's sweet, dignified portrayal of Reverend Morell is the pillar on which this Candida stands. Morell may be foolish in his lack of understanding of his dependence on Candida and his inflated self esteem, but this foolishness is based upon his internalized values of his society. He is not a foolish man. By capturing the multiple facets of Morell, Skybell makes him a likeable, sympathetic figure. This pays dividends throughout the production. Sue Cremin maximizes the dimensionality of Candida by not shying away from the touch of cruelty which Candida does not suppress in her liberated position. Cremin is a breath of fresh air in the vicarage when her Candida elucidates Shaw's view on the strength and importance of wives with clarity (including the delightful line of separation between wit and wisdom) and conviction. Will Bradley is most amusing as the callow, lovesick Marchbanks. Andrew Boyer fully conveys the sly and amoral crude businessman often seen in Shaw's plays. Elizabeth Morton's nasal Proserpine Garnett is amusingly dogged in her devotion to Morell. Jordan Coughtry ably rounds out the company as the young curate.
Tony Cisek has designed a large and lavish, realistically detailed and cluttered set. Dark colors and the subdued lighting of Traci Klainer Polimeni add to its verisimilitude of the production.
Candida continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday - Saturday 8 PM; Matinees: Wednesday 1 PM / Saturday and Sunday 3 PM / Student Matinees: Tues. 10 AM) through April 10, 2011, at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / on-line: www.trtc.org
Candida by George Bernard Shaw; directed by David Staller