Candida by George Bernard Shaw, Directed by Anders Cato
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...Becoming language for a Clergyman."
Jayne Atkinson as Candida; photo: Kevin Sprague
The fifth full-length play written by George Bernard Shaw, and his second "pleasant" play opens the main stage season at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in the capable hands of director Anders Cato. He has given us his visions of Shaw in the past with productions of Heartbreak House (very successful) and Mrs. Warren’s Profession (not so successful) and now he has provided June’s theater-goers with a remarkably agile and swiftly played Candida featuring a superb cast of players in a setting that proves that British homes, particularly in the poorer sections of London, are never comfortable even if they are large.
On Hugh Landwehr’s attractive, Victorian set more people squeeze around chairs and tables and desks to get somewhere else than you can imagine. While the center of the stage remains a large open playing area, Mr. Burgess, Mr. Marchbanks, Candida Morell, her husband, the Reverend James and even skinny Miss Garnett are required to circle furniture placed too close to walls, too close to exterior sets and too close to other furniture to make their passage reasonably easy. It is almost too tempting to shout out, at some point, "move the damned chair." However, that is something we cannot and must not do. No matter how much we’d like to help these people with their simpler furniture problems.
Shaw has given them something else to contend with, something deeper, more emotional and near-tragic in this comedy of errors. Being very good people the Morells have picked out of the gutter a young man with an aristocratic background the demeanor of an angry and disappointed six year old and brought him into their home and their lives. This young man, all of eighteen, has fallen in love with his hostess, the very married mother of two, Candida Morell. Marchbanks, for that is his name, is a poet and a discreet charmer and he woos the lady of the house with his words, with his infantilism, with his appeal. She is oddly torn between him and her own husband, a charismatic and handsome man whose only real fault is his goodness...and his own knowledge of his goodness.
Candida is a woman. She likes the wooing. She likes the playfulness and she pulls off a few neat tricks on her two chums, husband and suitor. In the third act (the second in this production) she is brought to the brink where decisions that will affect all three lives are in her hands. She is the wisest of women and the most impulsive. She gets what she wants - after all this is a comedy and not a tragedy.
Shaw is at his best here, inflicting his Socialist ideals on his audience from the mouths of fine and righteous people. He also knows how to throw in a "zinger" every now and then and get the laughs. He is ably assisted here by a cast of very fine players.
Finn Wittrock is the young, ambitiously lusty and over-the-top emotional teenager, Eugene Marchbanks. He has all of the charm down pat and all of the fear and reactions through fear and lust than any man can bring to this role are also his to use. His dark hair and moody face paired with the awkward thrusts he allows his body to make in reaction to things said, hands offered, affection delivered, is a combination to die for. This role is well-made, almost tailor-made for him.
David Schramm, whose BTF career is much longer than the program provides (he was here in 1982 in "Palace of Amateurs") wrings the most out of Mr. Burgess, Candida’s father. Here is an actor who can make the rapid-fire transitions Shaw insists upon, from harumphing to hee-hawing, without batting an eyelash. As Reverend Alexander Mill, the highly typical, moon-faced curate, the company has provided the excellent Jeremiah Wiggins. He handles his role with ease and finesse and even when Mill feels awkward it is because Wiggins knows how to play the written word.
As Prossy, or Miss Proserpine Garnett, Morell’s secretary, Samantha Soule gives the part all it deserves. Her third act scene is almost hilarious, but she knows how to play it down a step so that while funny, she is also highly sympathetic and not the center of attention - for long.
Michel Gill (a.k.a. Michael Gill, Michel R. Gill and Michel S. Gill) and Jayne Atkinson are the Morells. They are also Mr. and Mrs. Gill, it turns out, and they do have chemistry on stage together which is probably a good thing for their own marriage. He is tall, somewhat stilted in his speech and mannerisms, but wonderfully exuberant in character while expressing his love for his wife and for his passions in religion, socialism and social conduct. He takes Morell to the far reaches of human experience, sometimes lost in flights of fancy. It is easy to see why, in Gill’s hands, the Reverend James is loved by everyone else in this play as well as by the crowds he goes off to address while in the middle of a personal crisis.
The many loving looks Atkinson throws Gill’s way can easily be attributed to their characters rather than to the Gills themselves, although there were moments when it was hard to be certain. Her Candida is everything Shaw describes and a bit more. She is tall, imposing and through her stature a trifle overbearing. With a shorter actress in the lead the commanding moments Candida has been given take on a more humorous tone. Here, the woman and the role provide a double harness of strength and stature. She has a wonderful voice and her eyes sparkle brightly enough to be seen, I suspect, in the balcony. Her smile is that of a woman of common-clay, but her gestures are pure gentry, gentility to the fingertips.
The costumes are intriguing. Olivera Gajic has made some curious choices in the designs of Marchbanks jacket, in Candida’s three costumes and in Morell’s smoking jacket. They’re not wrong, but they draw attention from the actors inside them. Dan Kotlowitz’s lighting is lovely and Landwehr’s set is fascinating, even if the furniture is placed wrong. Scott Killian creates a lovely atmosphere with his music.
Anders Cato and Shaw remain an interesting couple. Cato seems to grasp the quickening pace of Shaw’s drama and the alert quirks of his comedy. He makes nice pictures with his people and he has clearly given them much to consider in refining their roles. A director can really do no more than that. The final product is a quick and easy comedy of manners and mistakes that runs just a minute over two hours, which is a brisk pace for any British drawing room comedy of the turn of the last century.
A hearty welcome to Candida and her crew, real and imagined, to the Berkshire summer. The show opened during the solstice and there’s no where to go but sideways now. Around the furniture and around the morals in Shaw’s best early comedy. A must see.
Finn Wittrock as Marchbanks and David Schramm as Burgess; photo: Kevin Sprague
Atkinson and Michel Gill as the Morells; photo: Kevin Sprague
Candida plays on the main stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA through July 5. Performances are Monday through Saturday at 8pm, matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 2pm. Tickets range from $46-$80. For information and reservations call the box office at 413-298-5576 or visit their website, www.berkshiretheatre.org.