Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Though the image on the screen changes when the scene shifts back to England in act two, its symbolism remains: in the world of Victorian England, the rules are very clear, and behavior is as constrained by social expectations and class roles as an image is by its frame. This sense that everything must be just so is then reinforced at the very top of the show when a waiter (Sarah Mitchell, who doubles as a maid in acts two and three) exhibits engineering-level precision when aligning napkins on tables.
The caste system of the 1880s is on full display here. Sartorius treats the German waiter with an imperious dismissiveness that crosses the line (for a modern mind) into boorishness, and Blanche and Trench's nascent romance would have no hope if their respective bloodlines/social standing weren't sufficiently equivalent. Act two will strew obstacles in the path of their romance, but for now the familial merger may proceed with due diligence. The officious and snooty Sartorius will be revealed to be something less than what Cokane and especially Trench presumed.
Although Widowers' Houses is a sort of farce of manners, with convention and adherence to social strictures upending the characters' plans for the future, it addresses serious social concerns that resonate even with a modern audience: income inequality, classism, and a lack of affordable housing.
Shaw has done the performers a great favor by creating well-rounded characters with clearly defined objectives, and reveals their personalities through their words and actions. (Shaw was not shy about expressing his vision for the characters in stage directions. Cokane is described as "probably over 40, possibly 50, an ill-nourished, scanty-haired gentleman, with affected manners; fidgety, touchy, and constitutionally ridiculous in uncompassionate eyes.")
The actors have returned the boon by delivering marvelous performances that build on the foundation Shaw has laid for them. Though Sullivan is not fidgety at all, only slightly scanty-haired, and certainly not ill-nourished, he delivers Shaw's lines with grace and authority, while occasionally allowing just a soupçon of scoundrel to seep through.
Dan Hoyle's Trench isin line with Shaw's description"rather boyish" (though not at all "stoutly built" or "thick in the neck"). The boyishness shines through thanks to Hoyle's natural physicality. Some of this can likely be attributed to genes or upbringing, as Hoyle's father Geoff is one of the stage's greatest clowns. There's a moment when Trench covertly signals Blanche to come to him with a sideways nod of the head and slide of the leg that instantly put me in mind of his father.
As Sartorius, Warren David Keith has nouveau imperiousness down pat. A deep, resonant, authoritarian voice and haughty, pinched expressions are put to good use, helping us dislike his character from the moment he steps onstage and begins to order his lessers (who, to him, is pretty much everyone else) about with an impunity born of entitlement.
But it may be Howard Swain's portrayal of Lickcheese (a man in Sartorius's employ who enters in act two) that walks off with the show in his pocket. His character is transformed between acts two and three, and both are mother lodes of comic gold. His entire being seems suffused with an obsequiousness that morphs into a glorious sense of karmic triumph after the second intermission.
Director Joy Carlin keeps the pace brisk throughout the course of two hours and 25 minutes. She has achieved the rare sense of creating a flow that feels organic, yet at the same time perfectly controlled. Kudos also to costume designer Callie Floor, who has created finely detailed, elegant (or ordinary or threadbare, as required) clothing for each character. Lickcheese's outfit in act three gets one of the biggest laughs of the night.
Just as passions and unpopular emotions surely swirled in the hearts of Victorian Britons but could be expressed only in subtle, sometimes sideways forms, so too does Widowers' Houses deliver its message with a snark and sarcasm that is (barely) hidden beneath the façade of British restraint.
Widowers' Houses, through March 4, 2018, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., with added performances February 27 and 28 at 7:00pm, March 1 and 3 at 8:00pm, and Sunday, March 4 and 2:00pm and 7:00pm. Tickets are $33-$65. Tickets and additional information are available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.