A Man and Some Women at the Shaw Festival

Before this year we had never seen the very first performance of any Shaw Festival show.  Last Friday afternoon, though, we caught the first preview performance of Githa Sowerby’s A Man and Some Women at the Courthouse Theatre.  I was ready to pounce on glitches but was largely disappointed.  Early on, one of the actors stepped lightly on another’s lines; a bit later, an actor turned to speak to another who hadn’t yet moved to where she was supposed to be.  That was all I caught; first preview or not, there was plenty of polish.

Graeme Somerville

We thoroughly enjoyed this 1914 play, which gives us an emotion-laden look at tensions and secrets in a respectable English family consisting of Richard Shannon (Graeme Somerville), his childless, money-grasping termagant of a wife, Hilda (Jenny L. Wright), his two old maid sisters, and a young visiting cousin, Jessica (Marla McLean).

Our first encounter with the women made us feel sorry for Richard before he appeared on stage.  As they pass an evening together in the parlor, the sisters, Elizabeth (Sharry Flett) and Rose (Kate Hennig), complain that their mother, who has just died, cared only for Richard, not for them, and complain about his tardiness in coming home from the funeral.  Hilda has just rudely turned away a close friend of Richard’s who has called.  (How did they manage to make a woman as attractive as Jenny L. Wright look so frumpy?)  The fiercely uncharitable Rose is tearing up cloths to send to an overseas mission but goes out of her way to make a young cousin whom Richard has taken into his household feel unwanted and shamed because he was conceived out of wedlock.  Hilda is equally unkind to the boy, whom Richard loves; both idle women resent Richard’s spending money that might otherwise come to them.

Kate Hennig

Richard’s sisters hope that, even though they were not favorites of their mother, Richard will bring them news of an inheritance.  After Richard comes home and the older women go up to bed, Rose spies on Richard and Jessica to see if her brother is being unfaithful to his wife.

The play is perfectly crafted; its plot unfolds at just the right pace, building up to a “cliffhanger” at the end of the first act.  After half an hour, we’ve gotten, not just a quick pencil sketch, but a full-blown color portrait of each of the characters.  And portraits of relationships too:  a husband and wife who have nothing in common; then a man and a woman (Richard and Jessica) between whom there is perfect sympathy.

On the evidence of A Man and Some Women and The Stepmother, which we saw and loved at the Shaw several years ago, I’d say that Githa Sowerby had a special talent for villains.  Our audience for The Stepmother was full of righteous indignation against a blackguard and embezzler who deceives and marries a girl  for her money.  Our audience for A Man and Some Women was equally outraged at the hypocrisy of Richard’s blackmailing sister Rose and the selfishness of his wife Hilda, at their cruelty to the fatherless boy, and at their willingness to sacrifice Richard’s happiness for their own ends.

Populated with characters who are almost entirely bad or almost entirely good, the play seems indebted to a lost nineteenth-century tradition of stage melodrama.  But in this play the melodrama is fresh and delicious, never overwrought or over-sentimental.  The characters are not caricatures; we recognize them as flesh-and-blood people.

How much differently might audiences in Sowerby’s day, a hundred years ago, have reacted to the situations in A Man and Some Women?  Would they have identified and sympathized with the fatherless boy as we do?  Today we have not only shed the sense that the sins of parents should be visited on their children, which is well, but have also lost the sense of sin on the part of the parents, which is perhaps not so well.  Clearly the playwright, following in the footsteps of Dickens, thought it necessary to remind the audience of her day that God takes the part of the fatherless (Psalm 146:9) and that charity begins at home.

And in 1914 there was no higher value than an Englishman’s “duty,” about which much is said in this play.  But today we preach “self-fulfillment,” not “duty.”  Would a 1914 audience have felt, on the whole, that Richard’s “duty” to his wife and sisters outweighed his “right” to personal happiness?

The cast of A Man and Some Women was flawless and its entertainment value very high.  It’s hard to criticize anything about the play itself except its awkward title.  The program notes indicate that A Man and Some Women would have come to Broadway in 1914 but for the outbreak of the Great War.  I feel sure that any Broadway impresario would have insisted on a different name for the American production.

Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women at the Shaw Festival

(June 2010) We still think Clare Boothe Luce’s wicked comedy The Women is a great play. But the Shaw Festival’s production of this 1938 play — our long-awaited first chance to see it on stage — doesn’t nearly do it justice. The performances were uneven, and the direction didn’t seem to have any particular focus. 

Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler, Helen Taylor as a saleswoman, Heather McGuigan as a department store model, Jenny Young as Mary Haines, and Lisa Codrington as a fitter

The Women is the story of a circle of Park Avenue socialites, their amours, and their cutthroat competition for money and men. We meet them at a bridge party at the home of Mary Haines (Jenny Young), the one woman in the play whom the other women actually seem to like — up to a point. Mary doesn’t gossip like the rest, she isn’t looking to upgrade her husband as some other woman’s expense, and she’s a good mother. 

Moya O’Connell as Crystal Allen

But when the women learn that Mary’s husband Stephen has set up a secret love nest with Crystal Allen (Moya O’Connell), an ambitious floozy who sells perfume at Saks, they turn their claws on Mary and her marriage. Sylvia Fowler (Deborah Hay) urges Mary to visit a gossipy manicurist who, Sylvia knows, is sure to tell Mary the story of her husband’s affair. 

Mary’s mother Mrs. Morehead (Sharry Flett) wisely counsels her daughter to do nothing and to wait until Stephen gets tired of Crystal. But her friends, maliciously relishing the the downfall of Mary’s “perfect” marriage, urge her to give him an ultimatum and, if necessary, the boot. When Edith Potter (Jenny L. Wright) “accidentally” reveals the affair to a gossip columnist, Mary gives in and forces the issue; it isn’t long until she’s heading off to Nevada for a divorce. (There are no men in the cast, but the women talk about men like Stephen Haines so much that we form mental images of them and are surprised at the play’s end to realize that we never actually saw them.) 

Jenny Young as Mary Haines

For these women, making disparaging comments about any “friend” who happens to be out of hearing range is casual sport. But director Alisa Palmer has made the show depend so heavily on laugh lines about the women’s gossiping that the play simply doesn’t deliver the biting satire that it should. 

In a moment of inspiration, for example, the playwright chose a maternity ward, of all places, as a setting for a scene that focuses on the utter self-absorption of one of the women. Edith Potter, who has just given birth, drops cigarette ash on her nursing newborn’s face, is amused when a visitor tearfully confides that she is getting a divorce, and is gleeful at the marital shipwrecks of Sylvia Fowler and Mary Haines.

The scene was intended to shock; Ms. Luce surely expected it to inspire not simply laughter, but horrified laughter. In this show, though, the scene’s biggest laugh comes when Edith brightens and instantly forgets how tired she is at the prospect of hearing new gossip. The sight gag overwhelms the point of the scene. 

The actresses consistently fail to deliver lines with the malicious edge that they need. It’s as if the director is willing to let us laugh at female stereotypes (don’t women love to gossip!), but unwilling to show us the sheer awfulness of the amorality of the women. Perhaps Ms. Palmer was afraid the play would lose its appeal as a comedy if the women were truly as unpleasant as Ms. Luce conceived them. But this show needs fewer cheap laughs and more piss and vinegar.

Kelli Fox as Nancy Blake and Jenny Young as Mary Haines

Jenny Young serves well enough as Mary Haines (according to Clare Boothe, “She is what most of us think our happily married daughters are like”), but we thought the only truly satisfactory performances were by Kelli Fox, as the unmarried writer Nancy Blake, who describes herself as a “frozen asset” and views the other women with detached amusement, Sharry Flett, as the gracious, aristocratic Mrs. Morehead, and Moya O’Connell, as the ruthless, predatory Crystal Allen. 

Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler, visits Moya O’Connell, as Crystal Allen, in her bath

In general, though, nothing ties the performances of the women together.  They simply don’t act like women from a closed, elite social circle; they’re all over the place.  Deborah Hay, for example, has the delicious role of the clever, treacherous Sylvia Fowler. But she plays the role if Sylvia were a sassy hat-check girl who’d married up, acting as if she were still playing the uncouth Billie in Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival a year ago. You’d never take Sylva for a member of fashionable society. Again, we fault the director; Ms. Hay’s excellent performance in this year’s One Touch of Venus (see this link) shows that she’s hardly a one-trick pony. 

And you couldn’t have concluded from the evidence of this show that Jenny L. Wright (as Edith), Nicola Correia-Damude (as Miriam Aarons), and Beryl Bain (as Peggy Day) are especially good actresses. 

The Women on film: If you see the abominable 2008 movie The Women advertised on Netflix, don’t waste your time and money. See Emsworth’s review. Look instead for the classic 1939 film directed by George Cukor, with Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell; it uses much of the dialogue from the play.