As usual, the Washington Stage Guild (WSG) has mounted a visually sumptuous production; in this case, George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida.” It is equally well-acted, although with some unexpected chemistry.
This is a charming, vibrant production that is true to its roots as one of Shaw’s ‘Plays Pleasant’ even as it surprises with a refreshing modernity.
The show is about a potential love triangle—Candida is a minister’s wife, and she is being wooed by an 18-year-old poet who hails from a wealthy family. He challenges her husband to win her hand, and her husband rises to the bait. Lost in all this might the wife, but Candida is not a fool. Plus, she has a point to prove—that she’s a fully-functioning human, and not just a wife, mother, daughter, etc. She is also not a muse upon a pedestal.
The young poet, Eugene Marchbanks (a hysterically funny, and at times just hysterical, Ben Ribler) sees Candida as needing his protection and to be saved. Her husband, the Reverend James Mavor Morell (Nathan Whitmer) sees her as wife and mother and not beyond her roles; nor is he really aware of what her roles entail. She is his appropriate wife; that box for his future is checked.
Even as the callow Eugene is in his house, attempting to win over his wife, the Reverend initially doesn’t take him seriously. Then, as the young swain grows more importunate he becomes enraged—mostly at the perceived insult to himself.
Without giving away the ending and the choice Candida makes, let’s just say she pricks both their balloons and plants some seeds in both minds.
It is in the relationship between the Reverend and Eugene that the play really takes off. The men have really wonderful chemistry and play off each other to hysterical effect. When driven to lay hands on Eugene the Reverend grabs him by the collar and threatens to throttle him, Eugene just goes limp and looks coyly up at him, offering no resistance. The flummoxed Reverend pulls him closer intending to shout in his face, but there is a moment of silence as they are nose to nose and it almost looks as if they might kiss. They don’t. The Reverend throws Eugene to the floor in a gesture of contempt and Eugene just curls up and looks rather comfortable.
Candida is subtly played by Emelie Faith Thompson; she is kind, warm, maternal, and generous with her time. She is also sharp and uses this preposterous situation to deliver some cutting truths to both of these gentlemen. Within the confines of her place in society, she makes clear she has agency.
The other characters include the assistant Reverend Alexander “Lexy” Mill (a handsome, charming Danny Beason), whose charm is wearing a bit thin on the secretary and the Rev. Morell. The secretary, Prosperine Garnett, is played by Danielle Scott. She is efficient and organized and secretly in love with Morell, but at the end discovers that her adherence to temperance rules only adheres to beer—she’s just fine with champagne, as she drolly makes clear. Rounding out the cast is David Bryan Jackson as Burgess, Candida’s father, who wants to make use of Morell’s political connections to further his business.
Whitmer portrays the growth arc of his character very well—he is a popular Christian Socialist minister and is somewhat famous and in demand as a speaker. But at heart, he is weaker than he seems, and to his credit, when he realizes what he owes his wife, he speaks whole-heartedly to her of his new understanding as he begs her to remain.
The set is richly detailed; it is designed by Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai. The costumes are impeccably of the period and designed by Cheryl Yancey. Laura Giannarelli directs the play, and in a nice twist, allows Candida to more than merely choose the man who needs her more, as is the norm; her Candida appears an amiable housewife and helpmeet but is very self-aware. It’s a nice touch that helps bring the play into the 21st century without disparaging the original (it was written in 1894 and first published in 1898).
This is a charming, vibrant production that is true to its roots as one of Shaw’s “Plays Pleasant” even as it surprises with refreshing modernity.
Running Time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
“Candida” runs through October 20, 2019, at Undercroft Theatre, Washington Stage Guild, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.