“That is what all poets do: they talk to themselves out loud; and the world overhears them,” says Marchbanks, the would-be poet in Candida. As it happens, two great Irish poets of the 20th century are talking to themselves out loud on two of Chicago’s leading stages right now, and what a joy it is to listen. At the Goodman, Eugene O’Neill (American-born but Irish to the bone) lives in his great elegy on the theme of truth and illusion, The Iceman Cometh. And at the Court, Dublin-born George Bernard Shaw’s witty romantic comedy Candida, now almost 100 years old, generates rich, solid laughter in a vigorous production directed by Nicholas Rudall.
The subject of both plays is women–or rather the tortuously ambivalent feelings about women that the playwrights have. If Shaw’s bracing, upbeat wit seems light-years apart from O’Neill’s brooding despair, it’s due to Shaw’s refusal to give in to his demons. But the demons are there, sure enough. Their cruel grins and rasping voices are plain as a midnight moon in the argument between the two male characters in whom Shaw has invested so much of himself.
James Morell is a Protestant minister and socialist activist, acclaimed for his oratorical charisma and beloved by most women, certainly by his wife Candida. Much of his charm lies in his innocence–that is, his obliviousness to reality. The charm is double-edged and dangerous; it can bring pain to others–such as Proserpine Garnett, the secretary who languishes with love for him–and to himself, as when it prevents him from recognizing the potential threat posed by a younger rival. That rival is Eugene Marchbanks, 18 years old and burning with passion for life in general and Morell’s wife specifically. Welcomed as a sort of surrogate son into the couple’s home, Marchbanks finally declares himself a competitor with his benefactor for Candida’s love. At first astounded, Morell finds himself in a strange and uncomfortable position: he must take stock of himself, what he is and what he has to offer. And, according to his nature, he must do so ethically, without succumbing to his perfectly natural initial instinct to punch Marchbanks’s head off.
The tense menage a trois at the center of Candida’s action is Shaw’s working out of very personal, unresolved conflicts. Shaw’s father was an unsuccessful, alcoholic businessman; his artistically inclined mother was more concerned with her musical studies than her parental duties. Figuring in his parents’ estrangement was Mrs. Shaw’s singing teacher, George Vandeleur Lee, who for a time lived in the Shaw household under what Shaw claimed were chaste conditions.
Much has been made of Shaw’s reworking of this triangle–erotically charged, whether consummated or not–in Marchbanks’s heated but platonic courtship of Candida right under Morell’s nose. But in Rudall’s staging Candida becomes strikingly clear as wish fulfillment, as Shaw exorcising his own muddled feelings by having his characters ritually reaffirm marriage rather than forsake it. Marchbanks, the painfully shy poet who hides his insecurity behind a rebellious, slightly Wildean aestheticism, succeeds not in seducing Candida but in strengthening her marriage to Morell–because in declaring himself a rival, Marchbanks forces Morell to assert his own legitimacy as head of the house. That position is to a large extent illusory, as Shaw delights in exposing in Candida’s climactic analysis of men’s dependence on women’s support: “Ask me what it costs to be James’s mother and three sisters and wife and mother to his children all in one.” But it’s solid enough to satisfy Marchbanks, who heads off to his future with a joyful secret in his heart. And if it’s far more sentimental than the more biting, realistic denouements Shaw was to give us in his later work, the author’s own deep satisfaction resonates fully enough to convince us of its rightness, at least for these characters and this play.
The emphasis in Rudall’s production on the reaffirmation of the father figure is due in large part to the vitality of Tom Amandes’s performance as Morell. Handsome and younger- looking than the 40ish character Shaw specified, Amandes radiates his character’s essential security and purposefulness even as he finds the spots of anxiety exposed by Marchbanks’s attack; his Morell undergoes not just genially comic discomfiture but a genuine crisis of his sense of self. He is strongly complemented by David New’s callow, pouty boy-man Marchbanks, perpetually struggling between self-absorption and brilliant insight into others.
Another factor in the production’s focus on the men is Daria Martel’s less than satisfying Candida. In her final speech explaining the very different love she feels for two very different men, Martel is moving and honest; but until then she makes a bland impression as the woman whose intensity of mind and spirit and physical beauty enraptures and enrages Morell and Marchbanks–just, in his child’s eye, as Shaw’s mother did him. The perfect Candida would reflect the wild ambivalence Shaw had toward his character–he called her “the Virgin Mary and nobody else” on one occasion and “that very immoral female” on another–and toward the woman who inspired this, his first major play. Martel is pretty and likable, but not much more. In contrast, Kate Goehring takes the small but tellingly sad and funny role of Proserpine and makes her a complex and captivating microcosm of the emotional turmoil played out in the play’s main plot. Solid support is provided by Rudall as Can
dida’s wily father and Christopher Cartmill as a befuddled curate.
Nanette M. Acosta’s costumes suit the characters well. And John Culbert’s design for the parsonage living room is perfect–plush and dowdy, comfortably overstuffed with pillows and plants and books and bric-a-brac, and most receptive to the lovely dappled lighting with which Culbert evokes a brisk British afternoon. Cozy and inviting, this is a home fit for a marriage worth saving–even if only on the stage.