Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2008

Men have this problem with women. They want us to be virgins, they want us to be whores, they want us to be mothers. So they have created the impossible ideal of the Virgin Mother, which generations of women have been punished for failing to attain.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) grew up in a ménage a trios. His mother, a professional singer, moved her lover and voice coach, George John Vandeleur Lee, into the family home when Shaw was 10. Before he was twenty his mother and sisters had left Shaw and his father in Dublin to live in London with Vandeleur Lee. Shaw insinuated himself as “the other man” into several marriages before his own wedding in 1898 at the age of 42 to Charlotte Payne Townshend, most notably those of May Morris and Henry Halliday Sparling, and acting couple Janet Achurch and Charles Charrington.

It was for Achurch, who originated the role of Nora in the first English language production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House that he wrote Candida* in 1894, although it did not see the stage until 1897. During the many years that Shaw pursued Achurch to perform the title role, refusing to allow any other actress to take it on, he and the Charringtons enacted their own version of the play in real life, leading to Shaw’s complete disillusion with Achurch as an object of love. When she finally did play Candida, he said that she was “completely wrong” for the part.

Shaw referred to Candida both as his favorite of the 52 plays he penned, and as “THE Mother play.” And he was right. For ten years Candida was the ultimate theatrical expression of man’s virgin-whore-mother complex, until J.M. Barrie trumped him with Peter Pan, the most Mother Obsessed Play of All Time. Barrie succeeded in creating a viable Virgin Mother in pre-pubescent Wendy Moira Angela Darling. Thirty-eight year old Candida Morell is wife to The Rev. James Mavor Morrell and mother to their two (unseen) children**, but she is no virgin, despite Marchbanks’ presentation to her of a copy of Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin which the Morell’s naively hang over their massive Victorian mantle under the mistaken opinion that it is a religious image.

Shaw also referred to Candida as “a mystery” and indeed it expresses clearly the mystery that envelopes woman’s ability to seduce, to reproduce, and to nurture than so confounds man. Morell and Marchbanks never do quite figure it out, despite Candida’s patient tutelage.

Jayne Atkinson and her husband Michel Gill play Candida and the Reverend Morrell, while Finn Wittrock, a Berkshire native, plays Eugene Marchbanks in this lush Berkshire Theatre Festival production under the direction of Anders Cato. The BTF chose Candida to open their Main Stage season in their 80th year because it had been in the line-up of their first season in 1928, but also because the company has made a study of producing Shaw lately, with the advice of esteemed theatre scholar Eric Bentley.

Shaw sets his play in October, and Scenic Designer Hugh Landwehr, Lighting Designer Can Kotlowitz, and Costume Designer Olivera Gajic have used this as a welcome excuse for a sumptuous set glowing with autumn greens, golds, russets, and blues. Landwehr has created an uber-Victorian fireplace with a towering mantle filled with little shelves and gee-gaws to form a suitable shrine for Titian’s Virgin. Kotlowitz often allows the painting to be illuminated when little else is, or for the light on it to grow brighter as Marchbanks’ fantasies of Candida as the perfect woman increase in fervor.

Playwrights around the turn of the 20th century went in for lengthy and descriptive stage directions, and I happened to read through Shaw’s directions for the setting of Candida before heading off to the theatre. I was thrilled with how the design team, including Resident Composer/Sound Designer Scott Killian really caught the imagery of those words and brought them to life in the brief moments between the dimming of the houselights and the start of the action on stage.

Atkinson is a handsome woman, and her Candida exudes motherly competence and mature feminine charm. She behaves herself with great restraint when faced with her warring suitors. Her chemistry with Gill is natural, and he plays James with the easy charm of a man content in his home life and his calling.

Wittrock looked a little angular to be Marchbanks, I expect a softer, more boyish quality in the character, but he channeled the adolescent angst and misery of unattainable love magnificently, his body literally in spasms of agony at the idea of Candida’s hands touching boot black or peeling onions. Gajic followed Shaw’s instructions that Marchbanks clothing be arachic, giving Wittrock’s Marchbanks a suitably waiflike sense otherness for all his noble relations (his uncle’s a peer and an Earl.)

David Schramm has a nice turn as Candida’s blue-collar father, Mr. Burgess, who the Morells take completely in their stride. His character’s job is principally to provoke James to spout Shaw’s Fabian Socialist rhetoric. Shaw saw himself in James, although in his real life meddling in the matters of married couples he was clearly Marchbanks. But Candida is blessedly free of Shaw’s usual long-winded politics. Overall, the language feels refreshingly crisp and modern.

Jeremiah Wiggins handles the small and thankless role of Reverend Alexander “Lexy” Mill with gentleness and aplomb.

As the only other woman in the cast, the adorable, bright-eyed Samantha Soule is barely able to conceal her genuine youth and beauty behind Miss Proserpine Garnett’s buttoned up shirtwaist and wire-rimmed glasses. She fairly twinkles with vivacity. Prossy sees Candida with clear eyes as her rival for James’ affection, stating: “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses to hear a perfectly commonplace woman raved about in that absurd manner merely because she’s got good hair and a tolerable figure.” Being a woman, Prossy sees exactly how silly the men are being, and is rightly jealous.

While Soule does not get much stage time, she does get one bright moment when Prossy, tipsy on champagne for the first time, sets herself resolutely towards the door and makes a valiant, and successful, effort to cross the stage and reach it on wobbly legs without tipping over.

I have only seen Candida twice. The first time I saw it I was younger than Marchbanks. Now I am older than Candida, married, and the mother of two myself. That early theatre experience stands out in my memory to this day. I can still tell you exactly what the set looked like (the fireplace was stage right, and not nearly so ornate), and that the first name of the actor who played Marchbanks was Lucien, a name I found wildly romantic in its own right. He was a very bad actor and my mother explained to me that he was getting all the leading roles (he also played the twin leads in “Ring Around the Moon”) because he was the boyfriend of the (female) producer. I found the whole thing very daring – married mommies having poetry read to them by dreamy-eyed young poets, producers forcing perfectly competent actors to put up with their untalented boy-toys. Was this what being a grown woman was all about? It was certainly a fantasy that suited me, and therefore I thought Candida very brave and noble to choose her stuffy minister husband over all that chaste passion that Marchbanks was offering - that same kind of sanitized eroticism offered by shirtless photos of David Cassidy in Tiger Beat.

Now I realize that there is nothing romantic at all about Candida. It is just another woman having to put up with the peculiar mating rituals that men – young and old – think we will enjoy. It is exactly what being a grown-up woman is all about, constantly dealing with men, taking care of them, making sure their tender egos don’t get wounded. Because Lord knows it is just as hard being male as female – being the strong and wise provider when you know in your heart that you are just Peter Pan tamed and harnessed.

Now I understand exactly why Candida chooses James over Marchbanks, because the boy would be so much WORK whereas James is already housebroken. And because she loves James and has committed to him for the reason so many married women commit to their husbands – not because they were the most handsome or wealthy or talented man they ever met, but because they would be good life partners and fathers. Life is not all poetry and passion. Life is day after day of nursing children through childhood illness and supporting your spouse in his/her life’s work and peeling the onions and blacking the boots. Marchbanks, at 18, would be so bad at all of that. And what Candida has to give him, to teach him, is that realization.

Candida runs through July 5 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs two hours with one intermission and because of Shaw's dense language is really most suitable for ages 14 and up.

* The title of this play and the heroine’s name are pronounced Can-did-ah, NOT Can-dee-dah, like that annoying Tony Orlando and Dawn hit of the 1970’s!

** Only mentioned once, the Morell children are named Jimmy and Fluffy. (Fluffy Morrell??) They are in quarantine somewhere in the country after a bout of German Measles.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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