Pygmalionby George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Nicholas Martin.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"She is quite willing to meet you on friendly terms. . ."
Ownership is a much valued concept in George Bernard Shaw’s play "Pygmalion." For five pounds (5ß)Henry Higgins buys from Alfred P. Doolittle the body and soul of his daughter Eliza and this transaction ultimately destroys the Cockney dustman’s life, shoving him upward, headlong into middle-class morality.
Higgins is a theoretical scientist whose concentration on a universal language and speech documentation is better than sex, or would be had he ever actually had sex. With his friend, a scholar in Sanskrit languages named Colonel Pickering, Higgins takes a bet and begins to transform Eliza into a model of womanhood after his own fashioning. Like the sculptor, Pygmalion, for whom the Goddess Venus turned his statue of ideal woman, Galatea, into a living example of that ideal, Higgins transforms the Cockney flower girl into a lady of quality. Unlike his counterpart in the mythic tale, this Pygmalion/Higgins does not fall in love with his Galatea/Eliza. Instead he sacrifices his perfect bride for the hard to gauge, high moral Gate that he maintains in order to keep himself aloof from relationships that could prove to be involving.
The story, simply, is this. Henry Higgins is charged by Eliza Doolittle with the task of improving her state, which she will pay for, so that she can escape the ills of Tottenham Court Road. He moves her into his house and begins to train her speech, her sense of style and her mind. In the course of the six months he becomes dependent upon her as she becomes with him. After proving the challenge, Eliza want a bit of her own back, wants affection and appreciation, but she gets none, so she leaves the man who has recreated her and takes up with a toff who will always need to be dependent on a woman. She is back where she started, a possession, a purchase, a woman without a soul.
Shaw believed in the viability of women. He wrote for them, always presenting the broad spectrum of female behavior, of control, of acquiescence with conditions. I think he would have enjoyed the current production of "Pygmalion" playing on the mainstage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He would find himself among the broad spectrum of women there. Mrs. Eynsford Hill is the former belle of society whose manipulation of life’s income has left her bereft and her daughter Clara is the essential modern woman, all dressed up with nowhere to be. Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce is cool and efficient, concerned with the future and discontent with the present while Mrs. Higgins (his mother) is self-sufficient, smart, unaffected by the world around her. Eliza Doolittle is the ultimate in sculptable womankind. Not only is she malleable, she demands to be used, and makes herself over into a creature that not even she can understand.
Caitlin O’Connell plays Mrs. Pearce. She gives the housekeeper strength and fortitude, but she adds an unanticipated warmth to the character that is not usually felt and seen. In doing so she drops the other qualities a mite. Maura Cooper makes Clara into a girl whose personal habits are not pleasant, not acceptable in any society other than the one in which she is firmly rooted. She is the ideal snob and she shows it in both her extended scenes.
The wonderful Patricia Conolly imbues Mrs. Hill with a sensitivity that cannot be ignored as she implores Mrs. Higgins for continued friendship in spite of altered human conditions. Conolly uses the fragility of her image to good advantage in this role making a fortune-seeking mother into a sympathetic character. She has two commodities to sell: a handsome son and a nubile daughter.
Maureen Anderman is delicious as Mrs. Higgins, absolutely delicious. She not only gets her laughs, but gets them with charm and warmth and credibility. She has nothing about her that is phony nor does she put on airs. This is a plain-spoken woman who will not tolerate games and will protect her rights and the rights of other woman to be treated with respect. Anderman gets all of that right and up-front and never makes her character anything but loveable.
Heather Lind is the production’s Galatea, is Eliza Doolittle. This Eliza is obvious raw material in the first two acts (there are five, presented in two halves). She is out there and obvious, nostrils flaring and accent appalling, hair a fright and posture unbearable. She makes the play’s gambit of a bet between sportsmen all too challenging and her transition into the third act where the still unpolished apprentice gets her first test is delectably comical. In the second half, as she blossoms into her new state of reality, Lind moves forward into the collection of great Elizas. I was not prepared to like her, but her work is that good. I think she is great in this role.
As her sculptor, Higgins, we have Robert Sean Leonard. He is almost defiantly masculine without so much as a touch of a feminine side. He exhibits no vulnerability and when he is brought to a state of anger where Higgins is potentially dangerous you can feel, out in the audience, the change in him and you shiver. One of the few actors I have seen in this role who actually manages the Shavian example of male intractability, his double break-downs have pent-up delicacy about them.
As the perfect foil for Higgins is the excellent Colonel Pickering presented by Paxton Whitehead who is the only right choice for this role. Nothing more needs to be said about the man who can get a laugh with a line that needn’t be spoken.
Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle is played here by Don Lee Sparks who looks the role, sounds the role and makes the role his very own. His transition in life status is a delight to behold and never for a moment an apologetic change. Sparks provides comic relief where needed and yet is never deliberately funny in this role.
Freddy is given a handsome face and body by Federico Rodriguez. By most standards he should win Eliza’s hand and heart. Dan O’Brien does nice work as the Bystander. The ensemble perform their various momentary roles perfectly.
Nicholas Martin has all the luck with this production. He has the ideal cast to work with and his production concept has been delivered with only modest mistakes. The sets by Alexander Dodge are fine if a bit overdrawn into this Edwardian world of high-toned women and masculine men. The costumes designed by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood cross-over a time period not perfectly designed yet right for their characters. Philip Rosenberg’s lighting does everything it needs to do and Drew Levy provides the right aural ambience utilizing Mark Bennett’s original music. Cookie Jordan does well with hair and wigs, solidifying the human images in this pre-world-war-one arena.
Pygmalion, it must be said, is not "My Fair Lady" and in its final moments we are delighted to note that. The ending has a small revision, both in dialogue and imagery. Shaw himself provided a variety of clues for where the play might go in the unsupplied Act Six, so a new take on this piece is not unanticipated, and not to be sneezed at either. Eliza’s fate lies, as it should, in our own imaginations and no two stories will ever be the same. As for mine, well, I really could have danced all night after this production.
Pygmalion plays through July 27 at the ‘62 Center for Theater and Dance on the campus of Williams College in Williamstown, MA. For tickets and information call the box office of the Williamstown Theatre Festival at 413-597-3400 or go on line at www.wtfestival.org.