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Being a theater company dedicated to performing the works of George Bernard Shaw, the Washington Stage Guild has for years had to answer for one peculiar oversight: Never, in 24 years of Shavian dramatics, had the company produced Pygmalion, the Irisman’s most familiar play. It wasn’t for lack of desire, just that the work’s nine roles require more actors than the troupe can typically afford to pay, especially if more than a handful are Equity members. Then, earlier this year, Arena Stage announced plans for an elaborate production of My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe’s more crowd-pleasing version of Shaw’s classic. That’s when Ann Norton, the Stage Guild’s executive director, realized it was time to keep up with the Professor Higginses. Thanks to a grant from the Abell Foundation, the Stage Guild finally has its Pygmalion, and it’s a pleasure to report that it’s good. Quite good, actually.
Arena Stage will have better millinery and sets, of course, but if all you want is a match of wits articulated in Received Pronunciation, the Washington Stage Guild’s production will certainly do. In fact, the cast speaks in more authentic English, Scottish, and Cockney accents than their better-paid peers currently performing War Horse at the Kennedy Center. The nine actors are mostly Guild vets, and they perform Pygmalion like it’s the Shaw show they’ve been wanting to do all their lives. Which may well be the case.
Steven Carpenter stars as Professor Henry Higgins, the phonetician who may speak perfect English but lacks perfect English manners. He manages to pull off the role without pretense, alternatively annoying and amusing the audience. He’s best when trading barbs with his mother, played by the delightfully all-knowing Lynn Steinmetz. Mrs. Higgins is a much more dominating force in the play than in the musical, and when she stands at her writing desk to holler, “Oh, men! Men! Men!! Men!!!” (excessive punctuation Shaw’s) at the end of Act 3, she becomes the moral force of the whole show.
The sets (by Kirk Kristoblas) are tastefully simple: Four screened panels rotate to reveal either bookshelves (Higgins’ laboratory), gray stone architecture (an outdoor portico), and near-nude pre-Raphaelite paintings (Mrs. Higgins’ drawing room). The costumes, props, and furniture pass for period appointments, and the most suspenseful moment in the play comes when every actor onstage is balancing a cup on a saucer. Mrs. Higgins passes a cup to Eliza, and there’s a pause when all you can hear is the tinkling of china while you sit anxiously waiting to hear what words will come from the former flower-seller’s mouth.
As Eliza Doolittle, Rana Kay doesn’t convey the transformation to society lady convincingly enough to be the show’s star. In the first scene, when she badgers bystanders to buy violets, her bottom lip juts out impertinently, as if she’s teething on the English language. There’s no “rain in Spain” scene in the play, so we don’t see her one-on-one work with Higgins, only the results, and in the final moments, when creation and creator argue over what will become of her now, their debate quickly tires: Kay is shrill and strident where she could be more conflicted and sympathetic. But really, Shaw might be partly to blame. He said himself that the play needs a sequel. And while that’s not an option, there’s always the musical version, which concludes with far a more complacent Eliza, still willing to go fetch the professor’s slippers.