She Stoops To Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith. Directed by Nicholas Martin.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Rub off the rust a little."
Brooks Ashmanskas; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Making its London debut at Covent Garden in 1773, Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy "She Stoops To Conquer" came complete with a dedication to Dr. Samuel Johnson which read, in part, "The undertaking a comedy not merely sentimental was very dangerous..." and in the prologue to the play, recited and written by David Garrick, was added this comment: "The Comic Muse, long sick, is now a-dying!" What followed in the play subtitled "The Mistakes of a Night" was a delicious play with laughs a-plenty that skewered the expectations of a theater-loving nation.
We have a paradoxically witty dullard calling the shots, a man named Tony Lumpkin. In classic tradition the characters in this play bear the descriptive names that would make Goldsmith’s successor, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an enormous success. Lumpkin, however, would be the defining character for a century to come for an odd-fellow who incidentally leads the action while rarely doing more than being a fop, or fatty, or faggot - depending on the needs of the show.
Goldsmith only wrote two plays and he died before he could come up with a successor to this hit play, dead at the early age of 45. As Mrs. Hardcastle says early in Act One, "Is there a creature in the whole country, but ourselves, that does not take a trip to town now and then, to rub off the rust a little?" She is talking not just of herself and her stodgy husband, but of us as well and here is the principal strength of such a play - it talks of us, of our foibles and failures and our need to feed on what is best in the big towns. We all need that refreshing change of air and what Goldsmith produced with his somewhat subtle farce-comedy was just that - a change of air, from stale to fresh, from rusty to polished.
On the main stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival they have dusted off this old warhorse, a staple of college theaters everywhere, and used it to open a tightly sealed set of windows, letting in something oddly fresh in the trappings of this centuries old comedy. Under Nicholas Martin's perfect direction, in a concept that is both lovely and lively, a corps of actors bring it to life in a production that simply shines with originality dressed in old-style values.
Brooks Ashmanskas is Tony Lumpkin and there is never a dull moment when he is on stage, his darkly common West Riding accent a triumph of country ways. He is a tormentor without being dark, an instigator of problems and a solver of emotional turmoils. And he is funny. He is deliciously funny.
So is Kristine Nielsen as his mother, Mrs. Hardcastle, Dorothy to her husband, and Old Wife to him as well as to her chagrin. Nielsen, in candy-hued paniered gowns that fill the stage when she, in her pink wig, takes center or stage left or up-stairs, is a marvelous delight. Like the cotton candy she resembles, she is sticky and sweet and dangerously addictive. You want more and more of her but the playwright wisely withholds her until he needs her. So we have to wait as well.
Paxton Whitehead disports himself as her husband, the host of the house in which the play takes place and he seems to have been born for this role, so perfect is he in it. He looks and sounds befuddled when it is the thing to do. He is forthright and honest when that is the character he is playing. It’s a case of never those twain shall meet and yet without a middle ground he is a sound and understandable Hardcastle.
Mia Barron is Miss Hardcastle, the heroine who ultimately spouts the title. She is brilliant. She pokes light fun at the things that need it. She romantically seduces her seducer. He is played nicely by Jon Patrick Walker who turns confusion into humor and derision into comedy. His father is the truly wonderful Richard Easton. What more need be said there?
Jeremy Webb has a marvelous time as the lover, George Hastings, cutting a very romantic figure and at the same time delivering a sense of morality to the proceedings. Holley Fain, as Miss Neville, his beloved, does a perfectly wonderful job in her role. Not as showy as Miss Hardcastle, she is nevertheless a precious cog in the Goldsmith machine.
Michael Wieser is an excellent Jeremy, Emily Ryder Simoness does nicely with Pimple and Elyse Steingold makes a lot out of a walk-on role, the barmaid Bet Bouncer.
While it pains me to praise the set designer (after his unthought-out set for this company’s A Doll’s House last week) David Korins has created a wonderful set for this show, it’s moving parts as much fun as its solid walls and doors. Ben Stanton has lighted the show with flair, and though I didn’t understand the area light follow on Mia Barron in the second act, everything else seemed to be flawless. Gabriel Berry has outdone himself with the costumes for this show as has Charles LaPointe with his wigs.
I never expected to be recommending an 18th century comedy to summer audiences, but here I go doing just that. She Stoops To Conquer will have you laughing through the hottest nights, the lack of electricity in your homes, the aftermath of racial tension drama in another town. It will help you forget the national debt ceiling crisis for a few hours and that wouldn’t hurt, would it?
Kristine Nielsen; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Paxton Whitehead and Richard Easton; photo: T. Charles Erickson
She Stoops To Conquer plays on the mainstage for the Williamstown Theatre Festival at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance on Main Street in Williamstown, MA through August 7. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400.