It's doubtful that any country ever produced finer socialists than those of Great Britain--of the literary sort, at least. Perhaps because the class system is so plainly laid out on that little island, writers like Shaw and Orwell could oppose, even hate, the ruling class without failing to recognize that its members were their neighbors. They didn't allow themselves the psychological luxury of seeing the aristocracy as mere monsters.
Likewise, for all the revolutionary fervor with which Shaw despised class inequities, he was far too shrewd to romanticize those who struggle against them. The pleasure of his early play Candida derives, in part, from this balance of perceptions.
Candida is a social comedy in the guise of a domestic comedy. Shaw poses his title character, a lovely and charming married woman in London during the 1890s, with a choice--between her husband, the impassioned, socialist clergyman James Morell; and her would-be lover Eugene Marchbanks, a disinherited poet more than a decade her junior.
James has always assumed that his wife adores him and is content in their marriage; Eugene is equally certain that he has her heart. As the play progresses, we begin to see that both are probably right, but when Eugene confronts James with his rivalry, the older man's confidence is quickly shaken.
Shaw, working in the style of his beloved Ibsen, unfolds the plot by having his characters force each other into rhetorical debates, so that by the third act Candida has been explicitly charged with the task of selecting one of the two men, right on the spot. But, unlike Ibsen, Shaw has the good sense to play these confrontations for laughs.
Arizona Theatre Company's Candida is a good production of a great play--efficient and well-turned staging, with a fine actress in the lead and plenty of competence in her support. It isn't quite a knockout--it's a hair more tame and restrained than might be hoped for, and the ambivalence of its attitudes is comforting where it should be troubling, as if the play were only saying "ah, well, men will be men and women will be women." (It is saying this, just not so cozily.) But at least director Penny Metropulos hasn't mistaken it for a tragedy--she works for pace and broad laughs, thus the show moves like the wind and leaves you grinning.
The success of any production of Candida depends almost entirely on the leading lady. Although Shaw said he regarded his heroine as his incarnation of the Virgin (and Titian's Assumption of the Virgin is pointedly placed onstage to emphasize the point), if the actress fails to strike the cool, Shavian balance the role requires, Candida could easily come off as a frightful pill--smugly cynical, priggish, even a bit of a climber. Her explanation of her shadow power in her marriage may seem no more than a modernist spin on Kate the Shrew's apologia for wifely subservience. Happily, ATC's Candida, Robin Goodrin Nordli, finds the key to making her the enchantress that everyone else in the play regards her: It's all in the name.
The magic of Nordli's Candida is her frankness, borne of love, generosity and a conspiratorial sense of mischief--many times, as she exits the room, she throws a mirthful glance over her shoulder at whomever is left there as if to playfully reassure him that she'll be back. She leaves no doubt that her honesty manifests itself in her sexuality, but her spiritual candidness is even more potent--it cuts and it heals.
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Her two chief admirers are almost as well-played. The tall, Lincolnesque Mark Capri is fine as the vaguely gassy but kind and genial James, while Raymond L. Chapman is very funny as Eugene--especially when he howls, sickened with horror, at the very thought of his beloved lowering herself to do manual labor like slicing onions or filling gas lamps. Chapman truly cuts loose in this and a few other scenes; his performance is as close as this production gets to daring.
None of the supporting players is weak enough to be singled out for it, and only one is strong enough: James J. Lawless, as Candida's middle-class, capitalist father, is a charming old reprobate. When Candida first sees him, she slips casually into the gossipy cockney of her girlhood for a moment, and you see how close they are--and how, before she started playing mother to the young men in her life, she may have served as his mother as well.
It's in the character of Candida's father that we also see how undated much of Shaw's satire remains. Father holds forth confidently on how Morell's socialist ideas are harmful because theyput more money in the pockets of workers who don't know what to do with it. Sitting at Herberger Theater Center, surrounded by silverhaired Scottsdale suits, you may sense some furtive nods of agreement in the dark around you.
Arizona Theatre Company's production of Candida continues through Saturday, March 23, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more details, see Theatre listing inThrills.