Apple Tree Theatre


Briar Street Theatre

No, it’s not the latest TV special from Geraldo Rivera. But in its wittily purposeful examination of romantic, political, military, and moral ironies, The Devil’s Disciple, George Bernard Shaw’s 91-year-old comedy about unlikely heroism in the American Revolution, is a far more advanced piece of work than much of what passes for modern today. Written in 1897, and originally produced not in England but in the United States, Shaw’s first commercially successful stage work continues to delight with its pointed analysis of the vagaries of human behavior.

At 40, Shaw was the author of five novels and seven plays–all of them outright failures or, at best, unprofitable succes d’estime. Trying to find a way to make his theater of ideas salable in the commercial marketplace, he turned to that most tried and true of genres, the Victorian melodrama. All the devices of that venerable formula are here–the roguish young villain-turned-hero who offers his life to save a better man, a sweet but unconsummated romance, an unhappy orphan saved from penury, a case of mistaken identity, a cliff-hanger ending, and a daring rescue from the gallows–but as Shaw undercuts the moral and dramatic conventions of his time, everything is turned on its head. The sanctity of mother-son love? Forget it. The play’s hero, Dick Dudgeon, hates his mother every bit as much as she detests him. He’s even proclaimed himself a follower of Satan in defiance of his mother’s grim, prim puritanism. (Not that Dick engages in black masses or animal sacrifice or anything so bizarre; in an officially Christian society, being a freethinker is sin enough.) But even Dick’s proclaimed diabolism is unmasked by Shaw: behind his droll wit and dashing demeanor, Dick is an indignant child, seething with rage at his unloving mother and desperately, though unconsciously, seeking a positive parent figure. This he finds in the man he assumes to be his antagonist: Anthony Anderson, the middle-aged town minister. The wily and worldly Anderson disarms Dick’s anger with his kindness and truly Christian charity.

It is the ambiguous relationship between Dudgeon and Anderson that gives The Devil’s Disciple the emotional weight to anchor its surface energy–not, as is often assumed, the attraction between Dudgeon and Judith, Anderson’s pretty young wife. In a play that skewers assumptions about military patriotism, religious right and wrong, filial duty, and women’s place in society (Dick’s mother, despite her general nastiness, emerges as a sympathetic figure through the injustice of her situation as a woman in a male legal system weighted entirely in favor of men), the most challenging question today, as it was in Shaw’s time, is: what are Dick’s feelings for Judith? When he offers to make the supreme sacrifice by offering to die in order to save Anderson, is it out of love for Judith? Or is he a man of his word who has little feeling for the woman? And can the heroine of a play–whom the audience is predisposed to favor simply because she is young and lovely–be the fool and hypocrite that Judith seems to be?

It is on this question that any production of The Devil’s Disciple turns; each production will find its own answer. Sandra Grand’s staging of the play for the Apple Tree Theatre takes what seems to me the most acerbic and least sentimental approach to the matter. The bitter energy with which Ray Frewen plays him suggests that Dick’s professed lack of interest in Judith is quite real–and, further, that he comes to actively dislike her as she becomes more romantically inclined toward him. By removing sublimated romance from the dynamic of Dick’s relationship with Judith, the Apple Tree production focuses more intensely on Dick’s emotional attraction to Judith’s husband as a figure of authority and as a man to be admired and even emulated–which makes the play’s brilliant final twist all the more convincing.

Unfortunately, Frewen must play off a less than satisfactory partner. Paul Greatbatch as Anderson falls far short of the character’s vigorous, virile strength; he comes off as a smug, suburban shopkeeper rather than as a pillar of physical and moral strength, so his climactic transformation into a revolutionary hero is almost impossible to take seriously.

The rest of the cast is similarly weak, so the production lacks the fiery melodramatic swagger needed to heighten the play’s satire and deeper moral conflict. Only Richard Burton Brown, in the virtually foolproof role of the British General Burgoyne–a role laced with the most keen-edged epigrams Shaw was capable of–gets the laughs his role offers, though his rather common approach (recalling Alfred Hitchcock by way of W.C. Fields) seems inappropriate to a character nicknamed Gentlemanly Johnny.

This, then, is a Devil’s Disciple with many flaws, but with overriding virtues: an uncompromising interpretation of the script’s basic moral conflict and Ray Frewen’s forceful, intelligent, affecting lead performance. In a season glutted with standard fun-for-the-family holiday fare–Tchaikovsky and Handel and Dickens and Dylan Thomas and Barrie–what a refreshing stimulant Shaw’s adult wit is!

Of the three actresses who’ve graced the stage of the Briar Street Theatre in Driving Miss Daisy, Dorothy Loudon gives by far the best performance. As Miss Daisy, the irascible old Jewish widow resisting the effects of senility, Loudon plays the character as well as her predecessors here, Sada Thompson and Ellen Burstyn; but she also plays the script in a way they didn’t.

With Loudon’s vigorous but never false presence in the role, the play’s many narrative strands–subtly submerged in the portrait of its proud title character–emerge much more interestingly than before. Besides the relationship between the aged Daisy and her aging black chauffeur Hoke, we now see more clearly the story of Miss Daisy’s family–and through that, the social changes in the position and politics of southern Jews over the years. The character of Florine, Daisy’s social-climbing daughter-in-law (who’s never seen), is now nearly as clear as Daisy’s son Boolie, played with ever greater clarity over the production’s run by Matt DeCaro.

And Loudon surely could have no better sparring partner than Bill Cobbs, who has played Hoke since Daisy opened last April. Cobbs matches Loudon’s tough presence as superbly as he did Burstyn’s more introspective delicacy. And the comedy in Hoke’s and Daisy’s combative mutual affection is sharper now (though it’s never mugged, never overbroad), making the play’s final confrontation with old age and death especially poignant. This Daisy is well worth a repeat visit.