ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Candida, like all his plays, whether within the realm of the pleasant or unpleasant, doesn't escape the too talky label often attached to his work — but neither can it be accused of being all talk and no play. The whiff of debate, notwithstanding, it is basically an engaging love triangle, filled with humor but also poignantly moving. If imaginatively staged and expertly performed, as it is in the production currently at the Irish Rep, Candida continues to amuse as well as provide plenty of food for thought, despite its Victorian time frame and mind set.
In the event that you're unfamiliar with the plot: It's a comedy which, true to the Shavian manner, also tackles a serious theme. In this case, that theme shows Shaw to be ahead of the curve in his appreciation of women as more than child breeders and decorative helpmeets.
The play's plot positions each of the main characters at one corner of a marital triangle. At the 2-sided base of the triangle we find the Reverend James Morrell (Ciaran O'Reilly), a pastor with an increasingly high profile as a dynamic mover and shaker who's so much in demand as a public speaker that it leaves little time to spend with his wife even though he adores her. In the opposite corner is Morrell's lovely and clearly intelligent wife Candida (Melissa Errico), who can be seen as a predecessor to many educated modern wives with careers of their own that they set aside or minimize to support a husband's' corporate or political career.
At the tip of the triangle is the catalyst for digging beneath the seemingly blissful Morrell marriage — a shy and awkward young poet named Eugene Marchbanks (Sam Underwood) whom Morrell has taken under his wing. As it turns out, Marchbanks not too shy to blurt out his love for Candida and also dismiss the Reverend's rhetoric as a mere " gift of gab" from a "moral windbag."
But what really shakes up the self-confident Reverend is Marchbanks' claim that he does not understand or deserve Candida and that she really yearns for the kind of love that Marchbank, young as he is, offers. And so, in just one day years of domestic tranquility are disrupted. Morrell is forced to take a new look inside himself and at the wife whose love he's taken for granted. By the play's finale, Candida proves to be far wiser and more complex than the ideal woman on the pedestal both men have built for her. The way she handles what has developed into a life changing decision is true to the time she lives in yet thoroughly modern. Women (and men) choices like Candida's aren't a simple either/or (choosing between a comfortable but diffiult partner and a younger, more romantic one), but a three-way option that makes choosing the tried and not so true — but only if it can be made better.
Whatever her real age, Melissa Errico looks just right for the age (33) Shaw envisioned her to be, but age appropriate casting doesn't make this complex woman less of a challenge to portray convincingly. You see, the character Shaw created is ageless and her appeal is essentially more maternal than sexual. She must therefore be a woman forcefully in charge of the household, yet feminine and flirtatious but not coming off as superficial. The exceptionally pretty Errico proves herself a vibrant and solid enough Shaw interpreter to be convincingly maternal yet utterly feminine. Thus, the scene when her husband leaves her and Marchbanks alone together for the evening hints at all sorts of yearnings but stays within the author's more maternal than sexy vision for his heroine.
Ciaran O'Reilly's Morrell doesn't cut quite as dashing and charismatic a figure as you might expect from a man who's risen to celebrity status in the Christian Socialist movement whose popularity as an inspirational speaker is as much about his large following with women smitten with his persona and delivery than what he has to say. Fortunately O'Reilly is a fine actor and captures the subtleties of a man who's been made overly self-confident as the only boy in a household of an indulgent mother and sisters — a pattern of lovingly cocooning him that's been continued in his marriage.
The character of the painfully shy and insecure Marchbanks also seems to cry out for a more gorgeous young hunk than Sam Underwood, but again we have an actor who wins us over. Underwood is most persuasive in portraying the bashful boy whose passion gives him the courage to speak his mind and ultimately take Morrell along for his rite of passage from boyhood to manhood.
While Brian Murray has a subsidiary role as Mr. Burgess, Candida's pragmatic father, this actor with his impish grin and booming voice is never less than a major pleasure. And Murray as usual does not disappoint. He adds a generous dose of humor, as does the terrifically enjoyable Xanthe Elbrick as the Reverend's typist. Her Prossy is adorably uptight and, with the help of two glasses of champagne, unhinged. One can't help wishing that the third minor character, Morrell's curate, the Reverend Mill (Josh Grisetti making the most of the play's smallest part) could somehow take his boss's place in her secret romantic dreams.
Tony Walton has managed to give the Morrell parlor and study the rich look of a Broadway production, even though he's had to squeeze it all into the Irish Rep's tiny stage. He's even turned the playing area's problematic pole into a fireplace wall complete with the Titian's painting "The Assumption of the Virgin" specified in Shaw's stage notes, probably to symbolize the men's idealized vision of Candida. Since the audience members seated in the side thrust section can't see that fireplace wall, credit Walton who is the show's director as well as designer, for taking the painting off the wall long enough for all to see. Naturally, a quick glimpse isn't enough to underscore the power that this visual metaphor would have if a constant presence.
Walton's direction overall keeps things moving along without shortchanging the people in the side seats. Since the program has no costume credit, I assume Walton's designing also deserves a big hand for the apt outfits. Candida's gorgeous green velvet gown is especially noteworthy. Bravo too for Richard Pilbrow's effective lighting.
Much of the play's action is a set-up for the poignant climax. But the top notch cast with which the Irish Rep production is blessed sees to it the entire two hours make for good theater. For more about Shaw's oeuvre, life and witticisms, see Curtainup's G. B. Shaw Backgrounder.