"Candida" heralded the classic modern romcom, circa 1894: A good-hearted guy is thrown into turmoil when a smitten younger man makes a play for the guy's lovely and vibrant wife. Throw in a secretary with a secret crush and an unscrupulous businessman, and you get the picture.
Makes you wonder: How in the world did Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan avoid an updated version of the George Bernard Shaw comedy?
While programming Pittsburgh Public Theater's Masterpiece Season, Ted Pappas did the creative math and came up with "Candida" as a perfect match -- for himself as director and for Gretchen Egolf as his leading lady.
The key factors were his desire to direct a Shaw play before taking on "My Fair Lady," the musical version of Shaw's "Pygmalion," next season, and to work again with Ms. Egolf, star of the Public's "As You Like It" in 2012.
"I picked the play for her, which I sometimes have the pleasure of doing," said Mr. Pappas, sitting beside Ms. Egolf before a rehearsal last week. "As an actor she has not only the skill and technique but she's a true leading lady. That's a magical quality you really can't direct. That opens all kinds of possibilities. I picked it for her and I picked it for me, because I had never directed a play by Shaw, and I had never seen a production of 'Candida.' "
As Shaw plays go, "Candida" has been seen infrequently in the United States since the early 1950s. The most recent Broadway revival was 1993, with Mary Steenburgen in the title role of a woman who relishes her role as wife, mother and head of the household -- and gets a kick out of being the object of desire for two very different men.
The play takes place in one day, and the Public will present it in its original structure of "three perfect acts," each of about a half-hour. "It's like a dream play," Mr. Pappas declared. "I'm shocked it's not done more often."
Considering the play was written in a time when women couldn't vote, Candida gets to show the men what's what.
"Something that Ted mentioned recently that really resonated with me, it's not so much that she's smart and fun to be around and all that, but the main thing is, what the men really respond to, is that she's so full of love and she takes care of them and she knows what's best for them. Or at least she thinks she does -- I think she does," Ms. Egolf said.
"Both men see in Candida a woman who really gets them. She showers them with a mothering sort of guidance. She's so motherly. I think those things are very appealing," the actress said.
Mr. Pappas compared Shaw's attitude toward women as a driving force to that of "A Doll's House" playwright Henrik Ibsen. "Only Shaw has made a sparkling comedy," the director said.
"All men want to be taken care of, and [Shaw] created this character who takes care of all the men," he added. "It's very magnetic. It's a play that women and men, we recognize ourselves very easily -- our sisters, our wives, our mothers, our daughters are all in 'Candida.' And all the men are encompassed in the extremes of Marchbanks and Morrell."
Cast as the men in Candida's life are versatile Pittsburgh actor David Whalen as the Rev. Morrell, who encourages his wife's free spirit until jealousy takes hold, and as the poet Eugene Marchbanks, Jared McGuire, returning to PPT after "Clybourne Park." They represent religion and art in middle-class Edwardian England, while Candida's father, Mr. Burgess (native North Sider and New York actor John O'Creagh), represents the business side of things.
Although Shaw himself was an ardent socialist, he gives the capitalist Burgess some of the play's best lines.
"She's accepting of all of them, and that's where [Shaw's] socialism as a writer comes out," Ms. Egolf said. "There's this capitalist in Burgess and the socialist in Morrell and the romanticist in Eugene, and each of them thinks that's all you need and that would be the ideal society. But Candida sees, and of course we see, that you need all of them together. She sees they can coexist and that each person can be celebrated for these things, and we should have a sense of humor about ourselves."
This is a lesson that Candida is destined to teach the men in her life, but Shaw takes us on a little journey to get there. So does Candida.
"What I love about it is how he insinuates her into the play," Mr. Pappas explained. "We talk about her and talk about her and then 15 minutes in, she enters, and then she disappears. And then she comes back and by the third act, it's her act."
The director and actress talked about the well-documented history of the play in the U.S., which includes actress Katharine Cornell's long association with the title role. She played it three times on Broadway, starting in 1937 and finally in 1946 -- when Marlon Brando portrayed Marchbanks. Mr. Pappas recalled doing scenes as Marchbanks while studying at Northwestern University, where Shaw was a staple of theater studies.
"Marchbanks was everyone's test for a young actor at the time. It was like, Hamlet, Romeo and Marchbanks; that's what you tried to do," he said.
The Public will present the play as a contemporary product of its time. The set by James Noone reflects the elaborate notes by Shaw that let you know that the reverend's office and sitting room are in one space. There will be one entrance to the stage and a bonus for the actors waiting in the wings.
"When you open the doors to leave, you see the design continue into the hallway past where the actors play," Mr. Pappas said, noting that the "pre-entrance" is a trademark of the designer. "So when they are waiting to come on, they are in a real room. We love that here; it's part of our way of working. I don't want the actors going from a concrete slab into Edwardian England. I want them stepping through time before they make an entrance."
From an actor's standpoint, "It's huge," Ms. Egolf said. "We're all very used to being behind a flat that has the scrawlings of carpenters and all kinds of things."
" 'This side up!' " offered the director, laughing. "Arrows -- and possible splinters," Ms. Egolf added.
Speaking of entrances, the actress noted that Mr. Pappas had told the cast about Uta Hagen in the Shaw play "You Never Can Tell" to express the idea that "when she entered, she came in with this completely full life."
Ms. Egolf had been schooled by an acting teacher on how to avoid the opposite of that ideal. To lots of laughter, she stood up and pretended to be smoking, dropped the invisible cigarette, stamped it out and marched stoically forward, presumably onto a stage, presumably not completely full of life.
For Candida, that would not do at all.
"She doesn't feel repressed and ignored. She actually has quite a lot of power, but it's within a structure, a society where a woman is not allowed to vote and not allowed to not wear a corset. She thrived within that," Ms. Egolf said, noting that even today, women find themselves in similar positions.
"We still have those types of corsets," she said.
As the play powers to the finish, you might say that it's Candida who wears the pants in the house.