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A CurtainUp DC Review
Fanny's First Play
by Rich See
Washington Stage Guild is presenting it's sixteenth full-scale production of a work by George Bernard Shaw. This time out, it's staging Fanny's First Play, which appears just in time for the 150th anniversary of the playwright's birth. A play within a play, Shaw used the occasion to examine how deadening our preoccupation with societal norms and standards can become -- to the point where our concerns about what others think ultimately become a prison in their own right, holding us back from the joys of life or following our own moral compass.
Setting the stage in the opening scenes, we discover that the eccentric and highly opinionated Count O'Dowda has invited several well-known theatre critics to attend the premiere of his daughter Fanny's first play. Not wanting to tell them who the author of the piece is, Count O'Dowda is staging a private performance so that the motley group of reviewers can give Fanny honest feedback about her writing talents. As the Count explains to his assembled guests, this new worldly talent would write nothing of a modern sentiment, but instead offer up only writing which had been inspired by the purest forms of beauty and delicacy. Alas, the Count is not familiar with his daughter or the group of friends that she has been keeping while away at school.
Fanny O'Dowda has decided to write a very modern production examining social mores that shockingly includes convicted criminals and a prostitute among the cast. She's focused her performance on the Gilbey and the Knox families. Old friends, they have dinner every week, regardless of what may be happening within their own lives or even if they want to actually dine with each other. The duty has been established and so the four adults do. Even when the Gilbey's son disappears for two weeks, parental concern is pushed to the side and an excuse is offered for his absence as the dinner proceeds. Simultaneously, when the Knox's daughter is released from jail for assaulting an officer, her parents gamely attend the weekly ritual, full of concern about whether the Gilbey's are planning to drop them from the social register. Both sets of parents are consumed by the imagined horrors of societal rejection. And so when the debonair Monsieur Duvallet (a married French military officer) and the effervescent Miss Dora Delaney (a happy-go-lucky prostitute) arrive, the dinner party really kicks into high gear as the blinders come off and everyone's foibles become readily apparent.
Director John McDonald and designers have created a flowing piece that moves quickly through its two and a half hour time period. Ned Mitchell's adaptable set is changed around very quickly and William Pucilowsky's costumes are solid theatrical period.
The cast has several highlights, including Bill Largess' over the top Count O'Dowda and Laura Giannarelli's Mrs. Knox who repeatedly claims "I say, if you have happiness in yourself..." Chris Davenport's Monsieur Duvallet brings the foreign viewpoint of the British home and Jessica Frances Dukes shows that the irascible Darling Dora Delaney is an Eliza Doolittle forerunner.
All in all it's a fun time for both cast and audience as our human weaknesses are trotted out before us to laugh and then do a little self-examination. Although it's from a time period that existed over a century ago, Fanny's First Play, like so many classic works, shows us how little human beings really change from one era to the next.