Tuesday, March 29, 2011


The plays of George Bernard Shaw may have gone out of fashion (we don't necessarily find his social and political stances very radical today), but that hasn't prevented some of our most esteemed theater companies from mounting productions of his plays every couple of years—witness the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's sparkling Arms and the Man last summer.

Now, along comes the Two River Theater Company with their splendid version of Shaw's droll comedy, Candida, a play inspired by Ibsen's A Doll's House, which has as its protagonist a very capable woman who makes her own decisions about love and marriage, without leaving her husband and family, as did Nora in Ibsen's groundbreaking play.

Candida, by George Bernard Shaw at Two River Theatre Company  3/20/11<br />Set design: <br />Lighting design: <br />Costume Design: <br /> <br />© T Charles Erickson<br /><br />tcepix@comcast.netWritten in 1895, only four years after his debut, Candida promotes a cause dear to Shaw's heart: the importance of individual thought. Over the course of one day, Candida Morrell finds herself the object of two men's delirious affection: her husband, 40-something social reformer Reverend James Morell, and Morrell's protégé, 18-year-old poet Eugene Marchbanks, who plans to "free" her from what he believes is an unhappy marriage. Somewhat flummoxed at receiving all this amorous attention, Candida assesses the situation and, by the end of the day, makes her own decision, changing the life of everyone involved.

Director David Staller has ample experience with George Bernard Shaw, having directed every show Shaw wrote (65) at Project Shaw for the past six years, and it shows in his knowledgeable and firm direction of Candida. On a magnificent set designed by Tony Cisek depicting the Morrell sitting room cum vicarage study, six amazing actors bring Shaw's words to wondrous life. Bookcases soar to the ceiling, children's toys litter the floor, voluminous draperies envelope a large window and sliding doors through which a staircase can be seen convey a feeling of a comfortable family life well-lived.

Candida, by George Bernard Shaw at Two River Theatre Company  3/20/11<br />Set design: <br />Lighting design: <br />Costume Design: <br /> <br />© T Charles Erickson<br /><br />tcepix@comcast.netAs Reverend James Morrell, Steven Skybell portrays a confident man much in demand as a speaker, a man of deep social convictions. Skybell ably conveys Morrell's mad love for his beautiful wife, who has been away for three weeks with their children. His anticipation at her imminent return is charming, and when his relationship with her is challenged, he's even willing to fight for her! That Skybell is quite handsome (and rather cool looking with a scarf thrown nonchalantly around his neck) reinforces the passion inherent in his relationship with his wife. Often, Morrell is played by an older, more stuffy looking actor, so Staller’s choice of Skybell levels the playing field between the two rival for Candida’s heart.

His official life is managed by the acerbic secretary Proserpine ("Prossy") Garnett, played by Elizabeth Morton with an appealing bossiness and a mouthful of opinions she utters whenever she want. Garnett gets to poke fun at male arrogance and strength; her crisp behavior belies the emotionality with which women are so often charged. Played with a snooty British uppa-class accent by Jordan Coughtry, Reverend Alexander ("Lexy")Mill is clearly impressed with himself, despite the fact that most of what he says and does imitates his boss.

Candida, by George Bernard Shaw at Two River Theatre Company  3/20/11<br />Set design: <br />Lighting design: <br />Costume Design: <br /> <br />© T Charles Erickson<br /><br />tcepix@comcast.netInterrupting the work of this threesome is the arrival of Mr. Burgess, businessman and father of Candida, who three years before had a falling out with Morrell about the poor working conditions in one of his factories. This afternoon, he has come around to make amends, with the ulterior motive of making some important business contacts through his son-in-law. Andrew Boyer has a fine time with this character, complete with a lower class accent that shows him to be a bit of a climber. While he doesn't advance the plot very much, the exchange between him and Morrell over who is a fool or who a scoundrel is very amusing.

And as the dreamy, idealistic, aristocratic poet, Eugene Marchbanks, Will Bradley gets a chance to play the drama king, showing his "calf love" for Candida, throwing himself around the room, sitting at Candida's feet reading her his poetry, thinking he has to rescue her from her husband's preaching and ideas, and assuming a fetal position several times during the play. With his baby face , flowing hair and loose shirt he looks the part of the stereotypical romantic poet in love

Candida, by George Bernard Shaw at Two River Theatre Company  3/20/11<br />Set design: <br />Lighting design: <br />Costume Design: <br /> <br />© T Charles Erickson<br /><br />tcepix@comcast.netBut it is up to Sue Cremin as the beloved Candida to take charge of her unruly "suitors." Cremin barely contains her amusement at having two men fighting over her. Regal, beautiful, she exudes competence and control. By having the men sit on children's chairs as she addresses them, by calling James "my boy" and Eugene "my little boy", Cremin's Candida shows both men who is really in charge and just who are the "boy toys." And the only one in this play to walk out and slam the door is Eugene, once Candida has made her decision.

Anna Lacivita has dressed the cast in elegant, era-appropriate costumes, and Dialect Coach Maggie Surovell has made sure the actors' British accents are convincing and consistent. Lighting by Traci Klainer Polimeni recreates the passage of time from morning to night.

The beauty of Candida is that Shaw combines preaching with riveting characterization and a story that resonates today. In an era when women work outside the home yet continue to do much of the housework, it is nice to see Candida celebrated for managerial abilities that make her husband the "master of the house" and the important man he is to the world.

Two River Theater Company has performed four Shaw plays in its sixteen year history. I haven't seen the others, but I can say that their current production of Candida is an admirable addition to the canon of Shaw plays performed in the area and well worth a trip to Red Bank to spend some time with the Morrells et al.

Candida will be performed at Two River Theater Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, through April 10. For performance times and ticket information, call 732.345.1400 or visit online. Get there 45 minutes before the performance for "Before Play," a free discussion to give context and background about the show. And FYI, Two River Theater Company is only 50 minutes (39 miles down the Garden State Parkway) from my home in West Orange, parking is plentiful and there are some terrific restaurants close to the theater.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson