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Of Human Bondage

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 6, 2017

Michelle Monteith and Gregory Prest
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen's adaptation of Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham's sprawling 1915 coming-of-age novel, may accentuate the melodramatic nature of the plot, but the acting, directing, and the production itself make for a positively exhilarating theatrical experience and a stellar entry to the Soulpepper on 42nd festival at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Thiessen has honed in on the central character of Philip Carey (Gregory Prest) and his self-destructive obsession with the manipulative tea shop waitress Mildred (Michelle Monteith), as well as his inability to choose between a life in the arts and a more practical one as a physician (he is both a self-deprecating artist and a reluctant medical student). Philip also carries with him the burden of suffering from a clubfoot, which causes him to walk with a shuffle but which manifests itself more significantly in his low sense of self-worth.

Thinking that no one could possibly care for him, Philip becomes a sucker for a kind word, even when he knows he is being used. Thus, he is always willing to give money to his ne'er-do-well "friend" and fellow student Griffiths (Jeff Lillico), and to capitulate to the conniving Mildred, who picks up men, coyly flatters them, squeezes whatever she can from them, and then coldly discards them. As played by Ms. Monteith, Mildred is as seductive and dangerous as a black widow spider. Yet, even as Philip understands this, his craving for even a modicum of affection brings him crawling back to her again and again. This is true even when another woman, the down-to-earth and blessedly normal Norah (Sarah Wilson), enters his life and falls in love with him. Philip, who habitually asks "why" when someone says they care for him, starts to embrace the possibility of this relationship, until you-know-who shows up and crooks her little finger.

To demonstrate that Philip is unable to break free from his stunted emotional life, set designer Lorenzo Savoini has centered a large red playing area on the stage, a space that Philip never leaves (while the rest of the cast is set free across the entire expanse). This makes for a great visual cue, along with Savoini's shadowy and atmospheric lighting that permeates the production. Even more thrilling are the contributions of Mike Ross's sound design and musical compositions, performed onstage and dominated by the deep thrum of a double bass. The production also cleverly interpolates bits of music hall performances (Mildred's favorite type of outing), and even a bit of The Importance of Being Earnest, the kind of fare Norah prefers.

While Philip's love-hate relationship with Mildred represents his inability to move forward, Of Human Bondage is still a coming-of-age story rather than a downward-plunge-without-redemption story. And, so, Philip eventually does break through his stasis, thanks to a myriad of other characters who all along have been providing quiet support and life lessons that grow in importance until he is finally able to understand, as Maugham himself puts it in the novel: "The secret to life is meaningless unless you discover it yourself."

Under Albert Schultz's direction, the cast as a whole (a dozen of them, many of whom play multiple roles) is nigh unto perfect, operating as a tight-knit ensemble that brings to mind the glory days of the epic Dickensian productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In addition to those previously identified, special hats off to John Jarvis as Athelney and Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster as his daughter Sally, who come to Philip's rescue just as he is at his lowest; and to Stuart Hughes as Cronshaw, the absinthe-swilling poet, and Paolo Santalucia as Dunsford, the artist, both of whom remain Philip's dear and loving friends and his connection to his beloved art world.

Of Human Bondage
Through July 26
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Soulpepper

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