A G.B. Shaw play, done well, is effortlessly intelligent, fiercely witty, and filled with sharp conflict between incisively drawn characters, against a backdrop of passionate political conviction and wry amusement. In his early comedy, "Candida", all of that is evident, as well as a strong, powerfully independent woman to distinguish between love which is meaningful and love which is merely fanciful, between ideas of belief and belief put into action.
This handsomely mounted production, confidently directed by Cynthia White, has a strong, talented cast who perfectly fit the types and manners of their characters, in all but one instance. The language is beautifully delivered, and the abundance of ideas are neatly and cogently expressed. Brisk pacing keeps the essentially silly, comic plot moving along of its own momentum, which entangles us in its machinery without us having to lose time or thought on how unlikely it all is. Best of all, this play feels fresh and contemporary while it's clearly of its own period, and the satiric wit easily transfers to our own time.
As Candida, Lisa Peretti is just the sort of intelligent, elegant, forthright woman who would define the emerging feminine identity of the 20th Century. Her marriage to the prosaic, moral, inherently conventional Reverend James Morell is one of choice, and when she is presented with the effusive attentions of the romantically impassioned young man, Marchbanks, it appears to her a simple, direct question of choice, not temptation, of opportunity rather than appeasing moral constraint. "This comes," as she explains, "of James teaching me to think for myself." What I especially admire of Ms. Peretti's performance is her control, both of the action and of the emotions of the two men competing for her affection. She never demeans either man of his essential character, although it's clear to us early on which is the more substantial character. That allows the play of ideas to be humanized, and also makes us realize that she is both liberated and ethical, a woman of substance, not just abandon.
As Morell, Terry Edward Moore feels like he's stepped straight out of the 19th Century. As dusty and carefully composed as one of his sermons, this is a man who cannot be more interesting or more colorful than he is, and that's as drab in his own estimation as it is to the rest of the world. But that he truly loves his wife is never in question, no more than any of the rest of his spiritual convictions. Even in scenes with his antithesis, Candida's father, the scoundrel Mr. Burgess (vividly played by a perfectly cast Nolan Palmer), what we see is an impasse between sophistry and cynicism, the hypocritical and the merely fraudulent, all of which seem to be driving influences on the world. As the play advances, and Morell realizes that he is in actual danger of losing his beloved wife to a man so much more flamboyant and assertive than he could ever hope to be, we also see how absolutely his own stability depends on his wife's constancy. It's a dignified and carefully controlled performance, and even at its most extreme, keeps us close to the reason Candida will choose him.
The role of the romantic suitor Marchbanks is more problematic. Kevin Brady has been directed to play him more as an insolent child than as a naïve idealist. Attractive and self-assured, his artistic pretensions seem more expressed than embodied. Instead of a feather of delicate sensitivity, he seems more like a child constantly underfoot. His actions are more silly than supercilious. By making the role more masculine, he may be more of a convincing threat to Morell, but we lose the satire of the Oscar Wilde-like artiste Shaw envisioned. Certainly this immaturity has support in the script. Candida says, "Do you call that a man?... Bad boy". But part of the intention is also to find resolution in the recognition that mature love is grounded in real experience, not poetic contrivance. This directorial emphasis means that Marchbanks never really ascends to the ethereal heights of a poetic aesthete for whom all emotions and relationships naturally form iambic pentameter. I think it was a misstep in an otherwise perfectly balanced production.
I also want to appreciate the wonderful performance of Rachel Hornor in the relatively small role of Proserpine Garnett, Morrel's secretary and assistant. Mousy, inhibited, filled with self-censure, she gave us a wonderful contrast to Candida's independence, while also creating and displaying the conventional ethics by which this romantic triangle could be so outrageous. Lathrop Walker is also fine in a minor role as a conventional young gentleman, caught half-way between the extremes of the principals.
"Candida" was Shaw's first commercial hit, and it's easy to see why. This is a play with a good deal to say about the gulf between expressed values and choices made. The roles are clear and marvelously theatrical, the conflict amusing at the same time that it poses questions of some substance. Taproot has done a fine job with this production, and even with the one minor interpretive quibble, it's a satisfying, smartly amusing and excellently realized evening.
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