Emsworth admires the nerve of Jackie Maxwell, artistic director for the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario). In picking the playbill for the 2008 season, she chose one play (After the Dance) whose original production in 1939 ran for only a few performances and has languished in obscurity ever since.
And then she chose another play, a drama written by Githa Sowerby in the early 1920s that had never even been produced at all. Give her credit: The Stepmother is a remarkably good play, and the Shaw Festival’s production is a crowd-pleaser.
The Stepmother is the story of a smooth-talking con man, Eustace Gaydon (Blair Williams), his family, and his downfall. As the play begins, in 1911, Gaydon’s shady schemes have failed him and he is broke; he has even squandered moneys entrusted to him by his Aunt Charlotte (Jennifer Phipps). He expects, however, to escape exposure as soon as he receives an inheritance of 30,000 pounds from another rich relative who has just died. When Gaydon, a widower, learns that the money has been left instead to her young companion, Lois Relph (Clare Jullien), he hires her as a governess to his two young daughters, marries her, and starts over with her money.
Ten years later, his house of cards is collapsing again. His oldest daughter Monica (Marla McLean) needs money to get married, and her stepmother Lois, who has become deeply attached to the girls, wants to help. But Gaydon, again on the verge of a crash, keeps putting them off. His daughters and their stepmother are the last to know the truth about him.
Blair Williams, as the unscrupulous Eustace Gaydon, plays the most thoroughgoing villain seen at the Shaw Festival in years. Gaydon lies to his wife and toys with her mind much as Charles Boyer manipulated Ingrid Bergman in the classic thriller Gaslight. (Indeed, the program bios indicate that the stage version of Gaslight is among Blair Williams’s credits; I wonder which part he played.)
The sympathies of audience members at the performance I saw were all with Gaydon’s pretty wife; the audience didn’t for a minute blame the long-suffering Lois for yielding to a love affair with her generous, handsome neighbor Peter Holland (Patrick Galligan).
And the people in the seats had Gaydon’s number early in the play. By the second act, audience members in the intimate Court House Theatre (especially the women) were gasping and hissing with each bold new lie. Hostility toward Blair Williams, who clearly relished his role as a scoundrel, became marked and general.
The Stepmother is great entertainment, skillfully acted and crisply staged under the direction of Jackie Maxwell herself. Unusually for nonmusical plays at the Shaw Festival, the audience applauded with each scene change, not merely after each of the two acts. The show does not have a weak performance, but we especially enjoyed Marla McLean as Gaydon’s strong-willed daughter Monica Gaydon. We also admired the striking period costumes, designed by William Schmuck.
Our performance included a brief moment of unintended drama. During the play, the character played by talented veteran actress Jennifer Phipps ages by ten years, becomes elderly and infirm, and dies (offstage). Coming onto the stage for her bows, Miss Phipps tripped and fell to the floor, to the gasps of the alarmed audience. The applause stopped as the other actors helped her to her feet, then resumed with renewed vigor.