by George Bernard Shaw
Directed & Designed by Tony Walton
Starring Dan Donohue
Asolo Repertory Theatre
FSU Center for the Performing Arts/Mertz Theatre
5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarasota, 941-351-8000 or 800-361-8388
March 30 to May 24, 2009 in repertory

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

G. B. Shaw set his relatively early and sole "American play" in 1777 New Hampshire, with British soldiers, anxious to quash the Revolution, hanging suspected rebels right and left. After killing an exemplary one, Peter Dudgeon, they've moved to the next town, where the family of his brother, also newly deceased, gathers to hear his will. Into the spare, dimly lit house maintained by his self-righteous widow (long-faced Carolyn Michel, cheerlessly smug) sweeps their first-born.  Typically irreverent, outcast Dick Dudgeon elicits his mother's rejection, the hypocritical disapproval of alcoholic Uncle Titus (David Yearta, sheepish), surprise from fat-witted young brother Christy (very funny Kevin O'Callaghan, always seeking approval or possessions), but awe from Peter Dudgeon's brown and barefoot offspring Essie (Michelle Trachtenberg, with nerves always on the surface).  In the titular role, that Dick explains he readily took upon himself, rejecting a Puritan God, he intrigues Rev. Anthony Anderson (full-of-life James Clarke), come to comfort the supposed bereaved. But Dick dismays the parson's pious, 20-years-younger wife Judith (pretty Heather Kelley, conveying constant emotional struggles).

The will, which the widow Dudgeon sneakily tried to replace to her own advantage, is read with approval by sensible Lawyer Hawkins (David Breitbarth). It bequeaths Dick most of the estate, including care of his mother, but she leaves, cursing him. Since he's acknowledged his widespread speeches against King George and tried to drum up rebels, Dudgeon risks that the British, led by imperious Major Swindon (James Leaming, thorough at playing thick), will make an example of him. After Rev. Anderson leaves a warning at his house, Dick visits the parson to turn the warning around. As he's invited to share tea, Christy fetches Anderson to minister to his dying mother. 

When soldiers arrive, they mistake Dick, alone at table with Judith, for her husband, whom they've come to arrest. Dick immediately takes his place, impressing on Judith that she go along with the subterfuge and get her husband out of harm's way. A bungling Sergeant (Jason Peck, who makes his bit role sublimely ridiculous) insists "the minister" realize he won't return and thus take appropriate final leave of his wife. Judith faints after Dick kisses her; he is taken away. When Anderson returns, she's torn between promises and duty, but mostly her care for both men.  The Reverend is transfigured when he learns the soldiers came for him (giving James Clarke a transformational power as well).  What a difference he will make at the scene of the rigged Dudgeon trial!

Shaw has his wittiest way with the exchanges between General Burgoyne (Douglas Jones, emphasizing the knowing but exasperated "Gentleman" as Johnny was called) and ninny Swindon with devilish Dick. Or is Dudgeon, as Shaw said, a truly religious man? After all, he may be freethinking, but isn't freedom--including of beliefs and from tyranny--what the American rebellion he's part of is about? Doesn't he provide for Essie and accept his silly brother, try to rally and help the townspeople, stop Swindon from bullying Judith, and accept the supreme sacrifice in Anderson's behalf? It's clear that Dan Donahue believes in him and as him. In addition, Dick's first to point out the true nature of Anderson (so strongly brought out by James Clarke).

What, then, to think of much publicized changes and truncations director Tony Walton made? A perusal of the script he used, originally devised for the Irish Repertory in New York with its miniscule stage and budget, shows that he eliminated bands and used only a few soldiers and a double (unacknowledged in the program) for a chaplain. Instead of townspeople, he projected at the gallows scene a ravens-like crowd. The relatively few lines and extra words he added convey Walton's interpretation of the play as a message against religious extremism. Certainly that's a theme of Shaw's, but not the only one. According to traditional commentators, the main one concerns individuals finding their true identities and acting accordingly. When Walton emphasizes Judith's romantic attitude toward Dick and lets him flirt with returning it  (as publicity pictures promote), he is going against Shaw's grain. The playwright railed against critics who felt romantic feelings toward Judith motivated Dick Dudgeon to save her husband. In fact, Shaw was seeing in Dick an example of everyday heroes who risk their lives to save people they don't know, much less love, from fires and floods and pandemics. Since Sartre, Dick may well be noted as a type of existential hero. The devil's only in the details that characterize his heroic actions.

What somewhat obscures Dick's centrality to the action (and may heighten Rev. Anderson's) is the penchant, common in the last 50 years or so, for turning three acts into two. If each of the three comes on separately, the structure is clear. In the first act, Dick triumphs over mean and stupid family opposition in the guise of religious sanctity. Then he parries with the minister and especially his wife in behalf of free-thinking to make the best of this world. In the last act, he takes on a chaplain, a major, and a general, winning arguments against untruths, hypocrisy, cruelty and suppression of thought. But at Asolo Rep, romantic possibilities are stressed by their positioning in a lengthy first act and by the amount of time, especially in the tea scene, devoted to them.  For too long Dick seems less central than Dick-and-Judith.

On the definitely positive side are the authentic costumes co-designed by Walton and Rebecca Lustig, along with the velvet-bedecked throne at town center that becomes a gallows.  Lighting by James Sale goes a long way toward changing essentially the same (perhaps too cavernous) room from Mrs. Dudgeon's austere dining-parlor to the Andersons' much warmer one. Matthew Parker's sound design creates crowd reactions and musical backgrounds.Marian Wallace is Stage Manager for the 2 hour production of this minor Shaw play with some major delights.

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