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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Superb Production of Fences, but
Shaw's Candida Has No Spark

Theatre Works are presenting an outstanding production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer prize and Tony winning play Fences in their Palo Alto Playhouse. The two act play originally opened in New York in 1987 and it won the Tony for best dramatic play plus a Tony for its lead James Earl Jones. It ran 526 performances at the 46th Street Theatre. The original played here in San Francisco before its Broadway opening. James Earl Jones, with his booming voice, was magnificent in the role.

The setting is Pittsburgh in 1957 just as the Civil Rights movement is starting. Tony Maxson is an ex convict who went on to have a brief but shinning career as a ball player in the Negro Leagues before settling down to become a garbage man and provider. Tony is a man built of energy and bitterness. He is tired of lifting garbage cans and he goes to the union to fight the unfair practice of hiring all white garbage truck drivers. He wins the fight and finally becomes a driver.

Tony has many faults including outside sexual affairs, drinking and being very harsh with his son. He calls it “touch love” to beat down his son who wants to play football in college. A football scout is coming to see him about his son but Tony kills that idea. He believe that his son will be treated the same way he was when he was playing baseball. The coaches will only use white players in the game.

The idea of fences works on many levels. Troy and Cory, the son spend a lot of the time in the first act constructing a picket fence at the front of the stage. The fence is the wife Rose’s idea to keep the family safely within and the world safely outside. However Tory’s sense of being trapped grows through the first four scenes with the construction of the fence. This sense is mirrored by his son Cory’s growing resentment with his father’s rigidity.

Anthony J. Haney gives a tour de force as Troy. He has a well modulated and normal voice but he still manages to tower over the lives of his family and the audience. It is a spellbinding performance.

Cory is played by newcomer Cyril Jamal Cooper. He does a very credible job as the son. He is a little wooden but I believe it is due to his two dimensional character. However in the last scene, he comes into his own and gives a great performance.

Rose is played by Gloria Weinstock. She gives the character great warmth and humor. She is the most sympathetic character in the production. Peter Macon inhabits the role of Troy’s oldest son with the sexuality and menace of a con man. An outstanding and heartbreaking performance is given by Colman Domingo who plays the crazy brother of Troy. The set is gloriously simple, featuring the front porch of the sagging shack where the Maxsons live. The lighting is excellent as it cycles through the time of the day to give the set depth.

Fences crafts in eloquent language, robust humor and a riveting emotional force. It is one of Theatre Works' best productions. It runs to April 9th. The Cripple of Inishmaan will be the last production of the 99-00 season. It runs from April 12 to May 7, 2000.


Candida

The Marin Theatre Company is presenting the little produced George Bernard Shaw play Candida. This is one of the most early works of Mr. Shaw, written in 1895. I had its American premier on Jan 4, 1904 at the Madison Square Garden Theatre where it ran for 113 performances. At the time, the New York Times said “It was brilliantly original and very dramatic”. I don’t know who played Candida in that production.

The great actress Katharine Cornell played Candida in 1925 at the 48th Street Theatre for a successful run of 148 performances. It was considered as one of her best characters. She repeated it many times in rep up to 1933. Since then little has been heard of the play.

Shaw wrote Candida as a response to Ibsen’s A Doll House. Shaw implied that sometimes the husband can be the partner who is the oppressed and childlike plaything. The play is a tribute to a good marriage that can support the growth of its partners and still, although imperfect, be founded on mature love.

The plot is relatively simple. Rev. James Morell is very happily married to his devoted wife Candida. Everyone, he thinks, idolizes him. His secretary and curate fall all over themselves for him. The Rev is a member of a Fabian Society and he is a socialist in nature. He gives grand speeches to his follower of the Fabian Society. Everything is rosy, he thinks, in his perfect world.

The crisis arrives with the arrival of a good looking 18 year poet, Marchbanks, whom Candida brings home as some kind of pet. The boy has a puppy love attraction to Candida and he shows it in every way. He dramatizes everything that has to do with Candida. The thought of Candida having to fill oil lamps in the house gives him horror. She is an “angel on a mountain top,” so declares the young lad.

Marchbanks confronts Rev James Morell concerning his “deep” love for Candida. The Reverend thinks Marchbanks is silly and refuses to take him seriously. He tells the young lad “You’re making a fool of yourself,” so sure he is that his wife loves only him.

The ending is the confrontation of the three where the self composed Candida cuts through the male scrapping with icy clarity. The two men force Candida to chose between them. She keenly sifts through the play’s arguments about material strength and weakness until finally the husband realizes that she is the stronger of the two. She is Queen of the house.

The play contains long winded speeches on socialism ideas of the 19th Century. There is a very long dissertation in the first act between the Reverend and his father in law who is a capitalist and owner of a a factory where the employees receive meager wages. This discussion goes on much too long for my liking. There are many of these long speeches in the first act and it takes about 1 hour into the play before things really get moving. I also had difficulty with some the voices of the actors as they discoursed the isms involved. Shaw can be very difficult when he is expounding on his ideas of capitalism vs. socialism.

Stacy Ross as Candida was superb in the role. When she appears toward the middle of the first act, the play suddenly becomes alive. She inhabited the role as if Shaw had written the role for her. She exudes a sensual intelligence and she was in command of the sexual power she had over both her husband and young poet. Her movement on stage was exquisite. She made the talky play worthwhile.

The Reverend James Morell was played by Matt Gottlieb who was excellent in last years production of Puppetmaster of Lotz. He was very natural in his secure self esteem. It was interesting to see the unraveling of his confidence as the play progressed.

The young Marchbank was played by New York actor David Agranov. This young actor played the young Eugene O’Neill in Paul Robeson, All American at the Promenade Theatre in New York. He is a graduate of the The American Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre. His role was very difficult and he had to play the young poet completely over the top. His performance was boyish, brimming with enthusiasm and mercurial intensity. He was the very devil in his arguments with the reverend.

Thomas Lynch played Candida’s father. I thought he over camped this role and did a lot of excessive mugging that was not required of the character. His overbroad Cockney accent would slip sometimes. Emily Ackerman was brilliant as Morell’s secretary and Clive Worsley was admirable as the slavishly devoted assistant to the Reverend.

The set was excellent with geometric arch shapes in doorways, a bookshelf, fireplace and even the picture frames. The direction by Amy Glazer was crisp. It is a talky play and frankly I am not a great fan of Mr. Shaw. However this production was very professional. I just wish the play would have moved quicker since it took almost one hour to establish each character. I can see why the play is rarely performed. The play runs through April 9th.

Cheers,


- Richard Connema



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