Stage review

It's Shaw Lite, but 'Candida' is tasty enough

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Despite his obsessive moralizing, George Bernard Shaw knew how to entertain his audience. "Candida," his 1897 drawing-room comedy, is a light, unchallenging work that softens the playwright's dismissive view of marriage with charming characters and near-farcical situations.

Now, Pittsburgh Public Theater has pulled this shiny 19th-century bagatelle out of the closet, made it sparkle with James Noone's rich expansive set and Andrew B. Marlay's evocative costumes and presented it as a mini-"Masterpiece Theatre" on Penn Avenue. I almost expected Lady Mary Crawley to wander onto the set looking for Mr. Carson.

The handsome nature of the Public's production assures audiences from the opening line that they're getting a polished traditional show without any revisionism. It's Shaw all right, but Shaw Lite.

Under Ted Pappas' fast-paced direction, the playwright's peculiar version of the love triangle is tamped down in favor of emphasizing the play's endearing title character and her way of handling the two immature men (she calls them "boys") who tussle for her affection.

Candida is the wife of James Mavor Morell, a celebrity preacher a bit too full of himself. Her possible lover is 18-year-old Marchbanks, a discarded member of British aristocracy who fancies himself a poet. The three square off in the Morell drawing room and study where the reverend writes his moving sermons of Christian socialism.

Shaw chose the name "Candida" because it means pure, and in case we missed that reference, instructed that the Titian painting, "Virgin of the Assumption," hang at the center of the set. It's odd, then, that Mr. Noone uses a small, almost garishly red version of this key element.

Gretchen Egolf wears the burden of this "perfect wife" lightly although her husband, played by David Whalen, loves her "goodness and purity" and Marchbanks (Jared McGuire) thinks she's a saint.

Ms. Egolf will have none of it as she dances nimbly between her surrogate children while indulging their fantasies with a knowing smile. Mr. Whalen plays clueless husband as well as anybody, but Mr. McGuire, previously seen at the Public in "Clybourne Park," mugs it up shamelessly.

Shaw added three supporting roles to pump up the comedy:

Prosperine (a perfect Shavian name) is the Rev. Morell's secretary, a lonely woman smitten by her employer. Meghan Mae O'Neill starts slowly in the role but eventually becomes a funny comedic foil.

Mr. Burgess is Candida's Cockney father, a heartless capitalist who thinks Candida's husband a fool while he calls him a "scoundrel." Burgess is the first in a long line of free-enterprise proponents whom Shaw satirized mercilessly. John O'Creagh plays him with gusto and great timing.

Assisting Morell is another cleric, the fawning, ridiculous Rev. Mill. Matthew Minor's prissy performance as a frustrated suitor for Prosperine is engaging.

Henrik Ibsen was Shaw's original inspiration, so, he wrote "Candida" as "A Doll's House" in reverse. Morell is the pampered doll and Candida the boss of the household. It's Marchbanks, the lover, who leaves even though Candida has subtly made it known she's willing. "Is there anything else you want?" she asks him when they're alone. He's appalled. (Why she finds a teenage drama queen who writes bad poetry attractive is a mystery.)

What truly appalls the young artist, though, is the domestic bliss of the Morells, who worry about slicing onions and washing dishes. That life would suffocate his spiritual aspirations, he realizes, and he suddenly goes from boy to man.

"Out, out into the night with me," Marchbanks announces. "The night outside grows impatient."

This cold shower of renunciation is soft-pedaled in the Public's version, leaving the sense that the Morells are OK, the god of domesticity is in heaven and all's right with the world. In truth, their bliss has been turned on its head.

Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Post-Gazette and occasional theater critic.

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