Writers’ Theatre Chicago

By Adam Langer

What impressed me most on a recent trip to London was the quality of the theater–it was awful. Armed with a Time Out guide, a detailed map of the London tube, and a generous supply of orange-flavored Kit Kats (one of the country’s few culinary advantages over the colonies), I searched for a thriving, adventurous scene apart from the estimable Royal National Theatre and the tried-and-true West End, with its hoary revivals and vehicles for various Redgraves. However, the scene I discovered was grim.

Unfolding in cozy little spaces behind pubs and above fish-and-chips shops were some horrifying sights. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights audiences were packing in to see the most god-awful shite, which would probably have been laughed off the stage at the corner of Broadway and Grace. One romantic sitcom might have been a reject from Love, American Style; Shakespeare productions were about as convincing as Schaumburg’s Medieval Times; and a supposedly cutting-edge crime drama that featured spot-on performances and a Morrissey sound track couldn’t disguise its Agatha Christie underpinnings. Perhaps worst of all was a historically dubious, dramatically bereft drama about Federico Garcia Lorca, Salvador Dali, and Luis Bu–uel entitled The Persistence of Memory–which does in fact persist even now in my memory, as does the image of a besotted gent puking up Guinness in a lonely tube stop on the Heathrow line.

Nottingham-born Michael Halber-stam, artistic director of Writers’ Theatre Chicago, has won a reputation in town both as a theater director and as a tour guide, leading his subscribers on expeditions to the cradle of theatrical civilization in jolly old England. A noble calling, to be sure. But judging from my recent experience, a nobler calling still would be for him to lead Londoners on a tour of these shores, to see theater that appears to have surpassed the ossified scene in his native land.

The first stop on such a tour might well be Writers’ Theatre Chicago itself, a place stuffed into the back of a tidy Glencoe bookshop. This company offers the sort of theatrical experience one would expect to find on any number of tiny London stages, where even the most suspect performer seems to hold a certificate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and sport a jaw-dropping resume featuring everything from starring performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company to walk-ons as piss pot holder for Trevor Howard. Though Glencoe–with its sweater-clad audiences crinkling their dietetic-candy wrappers and engaging in country-club bonhomie (“Bob’s a dear friend. Bob’s meant a lot to this community”)–would seem hardly the place for a transcendent contemporary theatrical experience, Writers’ Theatre Chicago offers just that in its revival of George Bernard Shaw’s 1897 Candida. This production offers everything that off-West End theater in London does not: rich and carefully detailed performances, clear-eyed and inspired direction, and, despite the play’s age, a thought-provoking and modern sensibility.

The script is witty, intelligent, sexually frank, lean, and moral without being moralistic in the way some of Shaw’s socialist screeds are. This early Shaw critique of patriarchal society mostly concerns the conflict between pragmatic love in the domestic sphere and idealized love in the poetic. The character of Candida lies somewhere between the passive domestic ideal of what Victorian poet Coventry Patmore called the “angel in the house” and the self-reliant protofeminist who would rise from the ashes of Victorian society. Daughter of a scoundrel made good (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Eliza Doolittle’s father in Pygmalion), Candida is married to the parson Morell, a decent-hearted, forward-thinking man of the cloth who’s naive enough to believe that the swooning, adoring women who flock to his sermons are actually coming to hear his socialist philosophy. Morell’s faith in his own convictions and his position as master of his house are called into question by the poet Marchbanks, an impudent 18-year-old who seeks to spirit Candida away from the drudgery of her domestic existence.

At first it seems preposterous that the seemingly contented fortysomething Candida would succumb to the dubious charms of a petulant, moonstruck twit. But the notion becomes somewhat more plausible as Marchbanks’s poetic gifts and youthful lack of restraint are contrasted with Morell’s windbagginess and blubbering weakness, despite his self-assured public comportment, when he meets the slightest of challenges. Candida is faced with the absurd spectacle of a once dignified man and a spluttering teenager vying for the opportunity to give her succor, and ultimately her choice establishes what the title of the play suggests: that if anyone is master of the house and keeper of the faith, it’s Candida. The poet’s romance and the clergyman’s moral conviction are both disguises meant to obscure the fears of decidedly weak men remarkable largely for their neediness.

One hundred years after the play was first produced, Shaw no longer seems a trailblazer in sexual or global politics. But his writing has a certain freshness and wisdom, crackling with astute insights and more than a few pertinent thoughts (which it might behoove members of the U.S. Congress to study). The play is fairly littered with Shaw’s epigrammatic observations: “It is sometimes justifiable to lie,” “Opinions become very serious things when one acts upon them,” and “Nothing that’s worth saying is proper.” Though Oscar Wilde may be the witty social critic of the moment, there’s little in his work that can compare with the wisdom and drollery of a Shaw script.

Always an exposer of hypocrites, Shaw in Candida is the quintessential penetrating observer, particularly in his choice of supporting characters. Burgess–Candida’s roguish industrialist father–becomes socially acceptable when he alleviates the sufferings of his workers by firing them and replacing them with machines, acting as a critique of both the ravages of the Industrial Revolution and Shaw’s own socialist beliefs. Morell’s persnickety secretary Prosperine serves as a delightful lampoon of 19th-century ideals of sexual and alcoholic abstinence: her prim, teetotaling facade crumbles under the influence of Marchbanks’s poetic sensibility, revealing a positive lust for champagne and male companionship.

Veteran set designer Rick Paul has crammed into Writers’ Theatre’s humble space a richly appointed 19th-century drawing room complete with stiffly cushioned chairs, lots of mahogany, and tasteful carpets–suggesting a mothballed atmosphere perfect for the taking of tea and toast. But despite the staid surroundings, Halberstam’s production bursts with vitality. Casting is everything in a play so reliant on language and ideas, and Halberstam scores with every one of his actors. As the verbose, high-minded Morell, William Brown is remarkably understated, a model of comic timing. Playing Candida, Kristine Thatcher sounds like Billie Burke as Glinda in The Wizard Of Oz: her sugary sweetness bespeaks a domestic goodness that Candida transcends as the play moves along. Able supporting work is provided by the excellent Donald Brearley, appropriately blustery as Burgess, and Karen Woditsch, who delivers a hilarious, nuanced performance reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen as the proper Prosperine. But perhaps best of all is Scott Parkinson’s wonderfully realized Marchbanks, who is utterly credible in every way, from the character’s spoiled brattiness, which makes one want to swat him, to his romantic idealism, which makes him a worthy opponent of Morell’s pious hypocrisy.

Deftly paced, this Candida has the kind of joy, enthusiasm, and close knowledge of human psychology that traditionally inform good holiday entertainment–though it’s more sophisticated than most. It almost makes you want to spend the holidays in England so you can see how the play should really be done.

Or not.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited theater still.