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.

The Admirable Crichton at the Shaw Festival

We found J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, now playing at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), so clever and delightful in every detail that we’ll see it again if we can. We haven’t enjoyed ourselves so much at the theater in a long time.

Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby, David Schurmann as Lord Loam, and Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton

Crichton (pronounced “CRY-ton”) is a 30-year-old butler in the high-toned Mayfair household of the Earl of Loam (David Schurmann), described by the playwright in the printed version of the play as “a widower, a philanthropist, and a peer of advanced ideas.” One of Lord Loam’s ideas is that class differences are artificial, and he has decreed that, once a month, all the servants in his house must take tea in the drawing-room with him and his family as guests and equals. These social events are dreaded not only by Lord Loam’s three daughters, but also by the servants. Crichton, who as butler is head of the servants’ hall, finds them excruciating:

ERNEST: Do you know, Crichton, I think that with an effort you might look even happier. (Crichton smiles wanly.) You don’t approve of his lordship’s compelling his servants to be his equals — once a month?

CRICHTON: It is not for me, sir, to disapprove of his lordship’s Radical views.

ERNEST: Certainly not. And, after all, it is only once a month that he is affable to you.

CRICHTON: On all other days of the month, sir, his lordship’s treatment of us is everything that could be desired.

Lord Loam’s daughters know how profoundly uncomfortable Crichton is with this charade of equality:

LADY MARY (sarcastically): How Crichton enjoys it!

LORD LOAM (frowning): He is the only one who doesn’t; pitiful creature.

CRICHTON: I can’t help being a Conservative, my lord.

LORD LOAM: Be a man, Crichton. You are the same flesh and blood as myself.

CRICHTON (in pain): Oh, my lord!

Under pressure, Crichton reluctantly explains his distaste for “equality” to Lady Mary:

CRICHTON: My lady, I am the son of a butler and a lady’s-maid — perhaps the happiest of all combinations; and to me the most beautiful thing in the world is a haughty, aristocratic English house, with every one kept in his place. Though I were equal to your ladyship, where would be the pleasure to me? It would be counterbalanced by the pain of feeling that Thomas and John were equal to me.

Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton and Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby

A few days after the “servants’ tea,” Lord Loam and his family leave on a private yacht for an extended voyage to the South Seas. Crichton suggests a kitchen maid, Tweeny, as ladies’ maid on the yacht for Lady Mary and her sisters, and Crichton himself is persuaded to go along as Lord Loam’s valet.

Two months later, the entire party is shipwrecked on a deserted island in the South Pacific, where it becomes immediately clear that Crichton is the only one of the Londoners with survival skills. Indeed, Crichton finds himself in his element, able, intelligent, and masterful. He disabuses his erstwhile superiors of the notion that they can continue to be idle on the island, and as “nature” takes its course, their roles are reversed: Crichton becomes a benevolent, respected master of a smoothly run island establishment, and the others, who call him “the Gov.” (which is how the servants back in London referred among themselves to Lord Loam), become his servants.

Ready to fend off a wild beast on the island

Nature also takes course in the form of a blossoming romance between Crichton and Lord Loam’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary (who in the new “natural” order of things has been rechristened “Polly”, just as household servants in London households were given arbitrary new names by their superiors). After two years on the island, none of the party expects to be see London again. The sight of a ship forces the issue of what must happen to their relationships if they were to be rescued and restored to Mayfair.

In this show, every touch from director Morris Panych is golden; every minute a dozen small things tickle your fancy. It all works: the narration, the costuming, the songs, the singing animals (Panych’s idea, not Barrie’s), the little bits of pantomime business, the vanity of Ernest, who annoys everyone with his epigrams. The narration is taken directly from J. M. Barrie’s stage directions (reading his plays in print is a treat). The animals sing clever arrangements of swing tunes from the 1920s in close harmony. The “servants’ tea” scene in the opening act is comic genius. Panych’s material is superb, as Barrie’s characters are fully drawn and brilliantly colored, and Panych has given this show all the sauciness and scope of a well-directed musical.

David Schurmann as The Earl of Loam and Marla McLean as Tweeny

What’s priceless, though, is the way this superb cast delivers Barrie’s lines. No better Crichton could have been found anywhere than Steven Sutcliffe. He is as commanding on the stage as a Mayfair butler as he is as the buff, masterful “Gov.” on the island. The diminutive Marla McLean is an arresting and remarkably convincing Tweeny. David Schurmann, a world-class Shavian actor, plays the naïve and ineffectual Lord Loam. We were especially glad to see the ravishing Nicole Underhay back at the Shaw Festival.  Her transformation from a bored, jaded Londoner to an exuberant, accomplished island-dweller is something to see.

Crichton is a marvelous character, and he’d probably be better-known today if The Admirable Crichton hadn’t been overshadowed by the the popularity of Peter Pan, and if P. G. Wodehouse had not created Jeeves, who since the 1920s has been by far the best-known fictional member of the English serving classes. Jeeves was not strictly speaking a butler; he was a gentleman’s gentleman, serving Bertie Wooster as valet, personal secretary, butler, and jack of all trades. Still, Jeeves and Crichton have a lot in common as polished, intelligent, well-read masters of their own domains.

We think Wodehouse, a man of the theater who happened to be one of J. M. Barrie’s cricket pals, surely had Crichton as one of his models when he brought Jeeves into being. Early in The Admirable Crichton, for instance, we learn that Crichton has an ulterior motive for promoting Tweeny as a maid for Lady Mary and her sisters on the yacht:  the promotion will elevate Tweeny’s social status and make her a more eligible mate for himself.

CRICHTON (after hesitating): There is in this establishment, your ladyship, a young woman —

LADY MARY: Yes?

CRICHTON: A young woman, on whom I have for some time cast an eye.

CATHERINE (eagerly). Do you mean as a possible lady’s maid?

CRICHTON: I had thought of her, my lady, in another connection.

LADY MARY: Ah!

We thought immediately of Jeeves. In story after story, as Wodehouse devotees know, Jeeves manipulates his employer to his will, whether to inveigle Bertie Wooster into taking a vacation in the country (so Jeeves can go fishing), to further a romantic scheme of Jeeves’s, or to tighten his control over Bertie’s selection of ties and dinner jackets. Like Jeeves, Crichton manages to further both his employer’s needs and his own personal wishes at the same time.

And who can doubt that the title of Wodehouse’s first great collection of Jeeves stories, The Inimitable Jeeves, echoes the title of The Admirable Crichton?

The two essays in the Shaw Festival’s program for The Admirable Crichton, by Mr. Panych and Michael Billington, claim to find egalitarian socio-political overtones in the play; Mr. Billington says it has “subversive implications.”  We don’t see it at all.  J. M. Barrie was a romantic, not a socialist, and we’ve never detected any political agenda in his novels and plays. Indeed, if anything political can be extracted from The Admirable Crichton, it would be the fundamentally conservative notion that class distinctions aren’t the bastard offspring of leftist bogeymen like imperialism, feudalism, and capitalism, but arise naturally in every society.

But Barrie did have, along with the similarly apolitical P. G. Wodehouse, a genuine sympathy for and interest in servants as human beings. The Admirable Crichton includes an exquisite portrait of the social distinctions between different kinds of servants in large English establishments. Consider what we learn when Tweeny is interrogated by Lady Mary as a possible lady’s maid for the voyage:

LADY MARY: And you and Crichton are — ah — keeping company?

(CRICHTON draws himself up.)

TWEENY (aghast): A butler don’t keep company, my lady.

LADY MARY (indifferently): Does he not?

CRICHTON: No, your ladyship, we butlers may — (he makes a gesture with his arms) — but we do not keep company.

AGATHA: I know what it is; you are engaged?

(TWEENY looks longingly at CRICHTON.)

CRICHTON: Certainly not, my lady. The utmost I can say at present is that I have cast a favourable eye.

Another great English dramatist, by contrast, had no interest in servants as people. Many of Emsworth’s readers will recall the exchange between Algernon and his butler Lane in the opening scene of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:

ALGERNON: Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.

LANE: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

ALGERNON: Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?

LANE: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

ALGERNON (languidly): I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.

LANE: No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

But Wodehouse and Barrie do find servants interesting. In “Jeeves in the Springtime,” Jeeves speaks to his employer about his own personal life with the same delicacy and reserve as Crichton. Asked how he knows that Bingo Little’s uncle lives in Pounceby Gardens, Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, who is narrating the story,

“I am on terms of some intimacy with the elder Mr. Little’s cook, sir. In fact, there is an understanding.”

[Bertie narrates:] I’m bound to say that this gave me a bit of a start. Somehow I’d never thought of Jeeves going in for that sort of thing.

“Do you mean you’re engaged?”

“It may be said to amount to that, sir.”

“Well, well!”

The stories of P. G. Wodehouse owe much of their interest to the cooks, butlers, valets, gardeners, secretaries, and pig-keepers who populate the country estates of Lord Emsworth and Bertie Wooster’s relatives.

J. M. Barrie, one of Emsworth’s favorite writers, was a elegant English prose stylist who can fairly be mentioned in the same breath as Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. The Admirable Crichton first appeared in 1902, two years before Peter Pan. The play is less fantastical than Barrie’s Peter Pan, and also much lighter — we’re remembering the dark, wonderful Peter Pan at the Shaw Festival in 2001.

To those who appreciate this production of The Admirable Crichton, we recommend not only the reading editions of J. M. Barrie’s plays, but also Barrie’s novels, like A Window in Thrums and The Little White Bird. We hope fervently that the Shaw Festival will be doing more Barrie plays over the next few seasons.

Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money at the Shaw Festival

David Schurmann as Greville Todd and Graeme Somerville as Billy Corman

We are enthusiastic about the Shaw Festival’s decision two years ago to put on contemporary plays in its new Studio Theatre space, and we feel badly for anyone who skipped Caryl Churchill’s 1987 play Serious Money.  We saw it just before it finished its short run in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season– probably too short a run, as our show was sold out.

Serious Money was a highly sensory experience, with rapid-fire dialogue, intense choreography, rhyming lines delivered rap-style, and more than one scene in which the actors were all talking at once — this in a performing space with the audience on all four sides. The story didn’t unfold as it might in a conventional narrative play; instead it emerged, one might say, through a series of collage-like scenes. But it was a good story, and the overall effect was enervating, not overwhelming. We have new-found respect for director Eda Holmes, who kept it all together (and seems to have served as her own choreographer).

The crowd goes wild at the London Stock Exchange. The fake money was left on the stage at the end of the show, and folks in the audience, who had to walk across it to get out, snatched up the bills as souvenirs.

The plot turned on one of our favorite topics, investment fraud, also the subject of some of our favorite books (Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities) and plays (David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross). And in fact Serious Money‘s shakers and movers at the London stock market are close relatives of Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe” (bond traders on Wall Street), right down to their profane, grandiose vocabulary.

We’d seen most of the actors in Serious Money in relatively staid, Shaw-era drawing-room comedies.  It was good to see them loosen up as characters in a more rambunctious social environment, especially Graeme Somerville, as Corman, the corporate predator; Marla McLean, as Scilla, the rich girl who tries to figure out what her brother was up to before he got himself killed; and Nicolá Correia-Damude, as the captivating Latin American investment mogul Jacinta Condor. (Most of the actors played two or three roles; seeing any play requires suspension of disbelief from the audience, and this one required more than usual.)  We were, unfortunately, once again reminded why we don’t think Ken James Stewart, who plays the murdered brother and other roles, is a convincing actor. All in all, though, we were very thoroughly entertained.

In case the Shaw Festival should ask for requests . . .

How about a John Mortimer play at the Shaw Festival?

By now, Jackie Maxwell’s probably finished her list of Shaw Festival shows for 2011. But we’ve been thinking that we ought to be more proactive in letting Ms. Maxwell know what we’d like to see on stage in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario next year, or maybe the year after, especially now that we’ve seen most of what we’re likely to see at the Shaw in 2010.

So herewith our helpful suggestions.  We’ve already vetted them for compliance with the Festival “mandate” (plays during George Bernard Shaw’s lifetime, or set during that period):

A Voyage Round My Father (John Mortimer)

The late writer, a great favorite of ours, would never have created Rumpole of the Bailey if not for his eccentric father, a blind barrister who specialized in divorce. This play — we’ve read it, want very much to see it performed — is a tension-packed fictionalized account of the mutually abusive and mordantly funny relationship between Mortimer and his dad. We can see Michael Ball and Steven Sutcliffe in the lead roles. The play’s our first choice.

Alice Sit-By-The Fire (J. M. Barrie)

For the last 20 years, the only plays besides Shaw’s that you’d have a betting chance of seeing at the Shaw Festival in any given year have been Noël Coward’s and Oscar Wilde’s. But we think James M. Barrie ought to be in the rotation too. Not that he’s been ignored altogether; in fact, the Shaw is doing Barrie’s one-act Half an Hour as its lunchtime show this season.  But the only full-length Barrie play besides Peter Pan that the Shaw has ever done was The Admirable Crichton, and that was before our time as Shaw patrons.

James M. Barrie

In his day Barrie had a long string of successful plays. We’ve read most of them, and they’re packed with lively, witty dialogue, vivid characters, clever plots, and bittersweet sentiment. They don’t seem at all dated or flat. We’d be thrilled with Mary Rose (a good choice for the slot usually reserved for a “mystery thriller” in a Shaw season playbill) or Quality Street. But our first choice would be Barrie’s 1905 comedy Alice Sit-By-the-Fire.

Like Peter Pan, Alice Sit-By-the-Fire is concerned with the impact of a powerful imagination on reality. In Peter Pan, the Darling children’s playworld becomes real as Neverland; in Alice Sit-By-the-Fire, a teenage girl’s imagination, inflamed by cheap theatrical melodramas, spins out of control as she transforms herself into a heroine who can save her too-youthful mother from a forbidden romance. We could see Diana Donnelly and Julie Martell in the mother and daughter roles.

The Iceman Cometh (Eugene O’Neill)

Ms. Maxwell has been cautiously introducing accustoming Shaw Festival audiences to Eugene O’Neill over the last several years, so with any luck The Iceman Cometh is already in her sights. She softened up patrons in 2004 with Ah! Wilderness, O’Neill’s wistful comedy about a teenage boy, his family, and the summer he became a man. Then she ratcheted up the misery in 2009 with A Moon for the Misbegotten, a play about the earthy and disagreeable Hogan family.

Eugene O'Neill

We think folks ought to be sufficiently braced now for O’Neill’s masterpiece about the down-and-outers and losers who hang out in Harry Hope’s grimy Greenwich Village bar. Ready or not, we want to see The Iceman Cometh, and we think Ms. Maxwell should lure Ben Carlson back to the Shaw Festival to play the salesman Hickey. It’s a play that cries out for the talents of a repertory company like the Shaw’s.

The Dresser (Ronald Harwood)

The golden age of British theater! We wish we could have been there in the decades before television when great classical actors like John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson played all over the British Isles. We know The Dresser only from the film version from the early 1980s, starring Albert Finney as a fading Shakespearean and Tom Courtenay as his long-time dresser.

The part of "Sir" was based on British actor Sir Donald Wolfit

This portrait of the delicate and complex relationship between “Sir” (the actor) and Norman (his dresser) is a perfect fit for the Shaw, which last year gave us slices of English vaudeville during the same time period (John Osborne’s The Entertainer and Coward’s Red Peppers). We see David Schurmann and Evan Buliung in the lead roles.

They even made a movie from Shaw's Androcles and the Lion

Androcles and the Lion (Bernard Shaw)

Why does Jackie Maxwell, year after year, like Christopher Newton before her, avoid Androcles and the Lion?  Why should a short list of plays one wants to see at the Shaw Festival need to include one of Shaw’s most celebrated plays? Surely it’s not too hard to stage; the Shaw has done it twice before, though not since 1984, before our time. 

Happy to help!

An Ideal Husband at the Shaw Festival

Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) with the woman whose wiles he frustrates (Mrs. Cheveley, played by Moya O'Connell) and the woman he loves (Mabel Chiltern, played by Marla McLean)

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband seems to us to have a bipolar quality.  Its main plot is heavy stuff: everyone thinks the world of Sir Robert Chiltern, but a dark secret haunts him. As a poor young man in the British foreign office, he made his fortune by selling a state secret to a speculator, and now he’s being blackmailed. His idealistic wife will despise him if he gives in, but he’ll lose his reputation and his career if he doesn’t.

But the play is also a comedy about what Lady Chiltern calls the “beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics” that compose London society. Chief among them is Lord Goring, a dandy who devotes himself to clever conversation, opera, and the perfect boutonniere. He flirts throughout the play with Sir Robert’s sister Mabel, with whom he is on the precipice of becoming engaged, and spars with his father, Lord Caversham, who thinks he is a wastrel.

Patrick Galligan as Sir Robert Chiltern is blackmailed by Moya O'Connell as Mrs. Cheveley

So while parts of the play are farce (a taste of what would make Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, written a year or so later, such a delight), the rest is dramatic tragedy. In this excellent production the contrast is sometimes startling. The second act, for example, ends in full drama mode with a long, impassioned speech from Lord Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) about his predicament.  But the third act (right after intermission) picks up with a comic exchange between Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) and his manservant Phipps (Anthony Bekenn) that could also have been played by Algernon and his manservant Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest. Only in the final scene do the farce and the drama finally intersect, as the villainess, Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O’Connell), is stymied and the truth comes out about Lady Chiltern’s much-misunderstood note, “I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you.”

Mortal enemies: Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O'Connell) and Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Catherine McGregor)

This is the best “An Ideal Husband” we’ve seen.  Jackie Maxwell gives equal attention to telling the story and to showing off Wilde’s glittering repartee. The dramatic main plot is so grave that a director could be tempted to downplay the comedy. Not so here; every outrageous epigram is milked for full effect.

Lord Arthur Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) in all his decadence

There isn’t a weak performance in this show; it’s an awfully good cast. We thoroughly enjoyed Steven Sutcliffe, as Lord Arthur Goring, and his backhanded courtship of Marla McLean, as Mabel Chiltern. Mr. Sutcliffe’s performance helped us understand something we hadn’t quite seen before: by the time he wrote An Ideal Husband in 1893, Oscar Wilde badly wanted his public to understand that there was more to him than the “dandy” image he had cultivated over the years, and that despite his reputation for frivolity and pleasure-seeking he was a man of principle.

That is, Wilde wanted people to see — through Lord Goring, who stands in for the playwright — that he’d grown up. Wilde still gives Lord Goring many of the best comic lines of the play, like this exchange with his father (Lorne Kennedy):

Lord Caversham: I don’t know how you stand society. A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.
Lord Arthur Goring: I love talking about nothing, Father. It’s the only thing I know anything about.

But he also gives Lord Goring a speech that would grace any soap opera, one so melodramatic as to be laughable — except that for once Wilde does not want us to laugh:

You came here tonight to talk of love, you whose lips desecrated the word love, you to whom the thing is a book closely sealed, went this afternoon to the house of one of the most noble and gentle women in the world to degrade her husband in her eyes, to try and kill her love for him, to put poison in her heart, and bitterness in her life, to break her idol, and, it may be, spoil her soul. That I cannot forgive you.

And in the end he makes Lord Goring the moral center of the play, the character who tells his friend Lord Chiltern that his philosophy of power is “a thoroughly shallow creed.” When Lord Chiltern describes Baron Arnheim as a man of “culture, charm, and distinction,” Lord Goring calls the Baron a “damned scoundrel.” In this show, Mr. Sutcliffe delivers one-liners and pronounces moral judgments with equal pungency.

Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O'Connell) fails to convince Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) that he's the only man she's ever loved

We weren’t enthusiastic about the non-period, jungle-gym-style set in this show, which certainly didn’t give much of a sense of the opulent London townhouses in which the play is set. But we did get a charge out of some of the extravagant costumes, like the outlandish dressing gown Lord Goring wears during the late-night visits to his apartment by Lord Caversham and Mrs. Chevely and the attention-grabbing dresses of Mrs. Cheveley and young Mabel Chiltern.

We arrived at the Festival Theater in time to catch a fine pre-show talk about the life and times of Oscar Wilde by the Shaw Festival’s Autumn Smith, who was assistant director for this play.

The Stepmother at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Jackie Maxwell

Jackie Maxwell

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.

Blair Williams, Claire Julien, and Marla McLean

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.)

Claire Julien and Patrick Galligan

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.

Marla McLean and Jesse Martyn

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.