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What Lies Beneath

Picking Through The Demure Social Patinas In Early 20th Century London Suburbia

TRIAD: (from left) Stan Weiman, Scott Kerns, and Deborah Hazlett heat up the drawing room.

By John Barry | Posted 5/31/2006

Candida

George Bernard Shaw

At the Everyman Theatre through June 25

Anyone close to Everyman Theatre’s stage on opening night might have noticed that above the mantelpiece Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin was curling at the edges. Instead of being a skillful reproduction, it was an elaborately framed poster, glued a little sloppily, on cardboard.

Whether intentional or not, it was the perfect touch to Everyman’s engaging, energetic Candida. The middle-class social circle that George Bernard Shaw introduces in this 1894 play has its veneer of comfortable civility, but upon close inspection it’s curling a little at the edges, too. Candida transpires in a sitting room and the people remain relatively civil, but this play occurs in a suburb that is comfortable but also, according to Shaw’s stage directions, a “desert of unattractiveness.”

Calling Candida a “drawing-room comedy” is a little deceptive. In this play it’s up to the actors to remind you that they are determinedly cultured but not too far removed from the mind-numbing manufacturing district. They’re also dealing with a massive economic realignment in which a new class is being built on the backs of an underpaid, exploited, working class—such as minor characters Prosperine (Jenna Sokolowski) and Burgess (Stan Weiman), whose accents, despite their best efforts, keep slipping back into working-class English. That’s not catastrophic, but it’s a little dysfunctional—not in the contemporary sense of families exploding in huge emotional pig piles. Shaw, a consummate control freak, isn’t about to let that happen. He lets it unravel slowly and comically—but never to the point that he loses sight of what he’s dismantling.

Shaw’s primary target is the Rev. Morell (James Denvil), a man who is not just a windbag but a highly skilled and well-intentioned windbag. He opens the play with good humor, leading his secretary through his busy schedule of preaching and speech-giving to various political and social societies in early 20th century London. His quick wit and perceptive, pithy remarks actually win over the audience, thanks largely to Denvil’s carefully balanced, appealing performance.

Since Morell is a windbag, it’s tempting to inflate him into a caricature. Shaw chooses instead to create a slow leak that eventually robs him of his confidence and complacency. Denvil takes us through this shrinkage process remarkably well—to the point that, by the end of the play, Morell is an emasculated, petulant, but still likable, version of his former heroic self.

It takes 18-year-old poet Eugene Marchbanks (Scott Kerns) to pull the plug on Morell’s self-image. Morell’s beloved trophy wife, Candida (Deborah Hazlett), is returning from a brief vacation along with Marchbanks, and the nervous, shy, rich kid quickly lets Morell know that he loves his wife. Morell laughs it off, but Marchbanks draws blood quickly, claiming that the esteemed reverend has “the gift of gab, nothing more and nothing less.” Wounded, Morell retreats, and then ferociously attacks; then Marchbanks challenges Morell to let his wife decide. Whom does Candida really love?

Morell and Marchbanks are a complex pair of antagonists, and it takes a light touch to take their contest seriously. Morell occasionally wants to strangle the young whippersnapper, but doesn’t really want to do him harm. And Marchbanks hopes to shock Morell, but doesn’t necessarily want to destroy his marriage. Kerns and Denvil work very well together. Their characters hate one another enough to make the play interesting, but they like one another enough to keep it going—much like an appraisal once made about Shaw himself: He has no enemies, but his best friends hate him.

The production starts off a little unsteadily. When Marchbanks arrives onstage, he is a Little Lord Fauntleroy parody, hiding behind pillars and chairs. But once Kerns dispenses with those quirks, he gives a magnetic performance as the incisive, if somewhat insecure, young man who has managed to win over Candida.

And it’s up to Hazlett’s Candida, ultimately, to play the referee who watches over both men as they gradually morph into two petulant children vying for her affection. Candida is a youthful, loyal wife, but as the play progresses she becomes an increasingly maternal figure, thanks to Hazlett giving her a mature grace and a whiff of cool distraction. In the end, the final question—whether she loves both, neither, or one of them—is more of a mystery than it was in the beginning.

A century can do strange things to Shaw, but whatever a current interpretation does it should retain the immediacy of the original. This production does just that: If, at first, the characters are a little stuffy, by the end you recognize something a little more universal in them. They want to change the world and they’re doing what they can. Whether they’re actually accomplishing anything is anyone’s guess.

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