My Spare Lady

Superb stagecraft helps Dear Liar ring true

There's an old story, perhaps apocryphal, about the original 1914 production of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Apparently, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the celebrated actress who originated the role of Eliza Doolittle, stopped the show one night. Stepping to the footlights halfway through her performance, she called out, "If Mr. Shaw does not leave the theater at once, then I shall."

Such was the tenor of Shaw's stormy, extramarital affair with Campbell. Dear Liar is Jerome Kilty's dramatization of the 40-year-long relationship between the noted Irish playwright and Campbell, one of the most famous stage actresses of her day. Wedged into Theater Works' rehearsal space, the show is the maiden effort of The Algonquin Theater Company, and its success can be assigned to director Robyn Allen, whose choice of players couldn't be more perfect. Jacqueline Gaston and Charles Sohn animate Kilty's talky script, which is based on hundreds of letters swapped by Shaw and Campbell and published by her daughter in 1952.

The famous couple, who were both married to others, met in 1899. She admired Shaw's playwriting talents; he was awed by her acting and ample physical charms. They continued to correspond long after their affair ended; their letters detail their first meeting, and end in 1939, a year before Campbell's death.

Jacqueline Gaston and Charles Sohn animate Dear Liar.
Jacqueline Gaston and Charles Sohn animate Dear Liar.

Details

Continues through Sunday, July 23, in Theater Works' black box performance space, 9850 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Call 623-815-7930.

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A play in which a couple sit onstage and read from their correspondence can be deadly dull -- witness A.R. Gurney's ubiquitous Love Letters -- but Kilty's is a vigorous, giddy blend of history and romance that will probably appeal more to theater types than to the general public. That's too bad, because, despite the historical significance of its principals, Dear Liar is really the story of two fascinating people with vivid memories of England's recent past.

There's no real action in Kilty's script, and theatergoers who aren't entertained by verbal sparring or thrilled by clever bons mots won't find much more than a stirring history lesson here. Allen's staging helps: She keeps both characters in their respective corners for most of the evening, so that their occasional center-stage meetings crackle with the tension of the passionate words that came before.

Allen's single lapse could have been lethal: Her unfortunate preshow "entertainment" finds Sohn applying his Shaw makeup and wiry beard onstage. This self-conscious nonsense serves no purpose; we already know we're watching actors pretend to be famous dead people; the image of them preparing to trick us is unnecessary and unexciting. Fortunately, what follows is pure pleasure.

The Shaw we meet in Dear Liar is an egotistical curmudgeon, but Sohn's sturdy Irish brogue softens his harsh edges and lends considerable charm to his portrayal. Sporting an untidy white beard, a gray flannel suit and a dour disposition, Sohn conveys charisma and humor in scenes that depict, after all, little more than a man reading from a sheet of paper.

Sohn's performance is less stylized than that of his co-star. Gaston's portrayal of Campbell is more matter-of-fact and less ethereal, but draws on the lady's legendary arrogance and self-pride. Her facial expressions -- particularly when she's responding to one of Shaw's acerbic asides -- are priceless, and her melodious voice recalls Maggie Smith or one of the Redgraves. Gaston's striking performance is a triumph of acting, though Campbell almost certainly wouldn't have approved.

The actors, asked to age some 40 years, merely decelerate their delivery. Until the end, that is, when both turn up as conventional oldsters, with canes and, in Gaston's case, a Korla Pandit-like turban that recalls Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. (Note to costumer Margrat Emerson: Not all fading female stars end up garbed as Norma Desmond.)

Ron Hunting's annoying slide-show scrim -- which flashes images of the real Shaw and Campbell, and of places where they presumably met -- is an unnecessary device that too often draws our attention away from the proceedings. But this, and Allen's unfortunate preshow shenanigans, are the only flaws in an otherwise perfect evening of theater.

In the final moments of Dear Liar, Mrs. Campbell describes Shaw's letters as the stanzas of a song meant for her ears alone. We're fortunate that Kilty, and the fine cast and crew of this local production, have delivered that private song to our ears as well.

 
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