Working as a London theater critic in the late 19th century, George Bernard Shaw despised the melodramas that were popular at the time, no doubt believing he could do better. Candida, his attempt at melodrama, was not widely admired at its premiere in 1894. But after its New York premiere, fan enthusiasm inspired the coinage of the term “Candidamania.” It would become Shaw’s most frequently produced play in his lifetime.
At its core the plot centers on a love triangle: A young poet from an aristocratic family, Eugene Marchbanks (Ben Ribler), has become infatuated with Candida (Emilie Faith Thompson), the wife of Reverend James Mavor Morell (Nathan Whitmer), and challenges him for her love. However, as a Fabian socialist and supporter of the suffrage movement, Shaw had a keen eye for the social injustices around him. James, curate Reverend Lexy Mill (Danny Beason), and secretary Proserpine “Prossy” Garnett (Danielle Scott) are Christian socialists who believe the pursuit of the Kingdom of Heaven goes hand-in-hand with the fight for a living wage, and are not above shaming James’ father-in-law, Mister Burgess (David Bryan Jackson), the owner of a textile factory. Meanwhile, Eugene, for all his boyish charm, does not know how many servants labor in his father’s house, and is shocked that Candida’s hands get dirty with housework.
Director Laura Giannarelli leaves no obvious stylistic fingerprints of her own on Washington Stage Guild’s production beyond assembling a solid cast. Ribler balances Eugene’s awkwardness and charm, gesticulating when an idea takes hold of him, and curling up or fidgeting when he realizes he’s behaved inappropriately. Thompson imbues Candida with the charisma that has inspired the respect and affection of all around her. Whitmer gets to the core of the play’s most complex character, James, displaying his flaws alongside his integrity. Scott and Jackson are perfect comic foils to the main cast, while Beason carries himself well in the unenviable role as the straight-man to the proceedings.
If there is a problem with this particular production, it is that there seems so little basis for James’ jealousy. Only in the imagination of the two rivals is Eugene even a rival, as he seems to inspire little more than maternal feelings in Candida, despite Shaw writing a line or two that could allow Candida to hint that she entertains a flicker of fantasy. By contrast, that sensuality exists in the Morells’ marriage is unquestionable.
Scenic designers Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai adorn the drawing room of Saint Dominic’s parsonage with ornate lapis lazuli-colored wallpaper and wainscoting with church arch designs, porcelain oil lamps, and a painting portraying the Annunciation. Cheryl Yancey outfits the cast in wonderful period costumes that illustrate the roles the characters play in their society, from Eugene’s rumpled finery, to Burgess’ suit through which he advertises himself as a successful businessman, to Prossy’s simple blue and white outfit that hints at her suffragette sympathies, to Candida’s stylish pink travel outfit with a feathered hat and her floral-patterned dress for the home.
At the time he wrote Candida, Shaw was under the influence of Ibsen, but whereas A Doll’s House portrays Nora’s realization that her self-actualization has been stifled by her marriage to Torvald, Shaw is modeling a marriage compatible with Candida’s actualization, despite the strict gender and class roles of the Victorian era. Shaw’s wit and radicalism, as both a Fabian socialist and supporter of the suffrage movement, are in evidence, but as one of his “Plays Pleasant” these concerns are kept to the background. The workers that Burgess exploits in his textile factories remain off-stage, while the physical labor needed to maintain the Morell household is spoken of but not seen. That an aristocrat like Eugene is slumming with the petite bourgeoise plays more for comic effect than class conflict. One-hundred-twenty-five years after its premiere, the play comes across as nostalgia, remarkable mostly for Shaw’s craft.
Let it not be said however that our times have rendered Shaw tame: The Shavian canon contains numerous works, like Press Cuttings (which was at one point banned by state censors in the UK) that still indulge our fetish for period costume and scenic design but with more penetrating satirical bite. The time is ripe for re-evaluation, in which we inquire what is most vital among Shaw’s works today, and not what was popular then.
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