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A House Divided 

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
Shaw liked to say the strongest marriages were business arrangements, partly because his was. But in Candida, he split his own personality in two -- Morrell the bombastic preacher vs. Marchbanks the romantic poet -- to see how the halves manage against a model New Woman who can play them like a couple of spinets. It's his answer to A Doll's House, meant to reverse Ibsen's formula of wifely bourgeois subservience in Victorian households. It's also a paean to marriage, written by one of the most unromantic men in history.

Rev. James Morrell, at first, thinks he's content. He preaches socialism to his bored flock every Sunday, has a brood of children, and a stable, attractive younger wife, Candida. Generous to a fault, Morrell has allowed an aristocratic young poet named Eugene Marchbanks into the house after scraping him, penniless, off the street. The poet's natural tenderness, eloquence, and honesty charm Candida, and she falls for him behind Morrell's back. Soon the Reverend learns, to his horror, that his household isn't as strong as it seems. The rest of the play is about Candida's choice.

Marin Theater Company serves its revivals straight up, and almost every gesture in Amy Glazer's production follows Shaw to the letter. Peter Crompton's excellent set shows a solid Victorian parsonage -- tall stained-glass window, fireplace topped with a painting, desk and typewriter, a deep entryway. Even the scenes of "miles of unlovely brick houses... and people plodding uninterestedly about somebody else's work" in the streets outside are suggested by panels at the rear. You expect a good but occasionally rote production of the 105-year-old play, and that's exactly what you get.

The opening scene has Morrell sparring with his father-in-law, Burgess, about socialism. Burgess is a caricature of a crass Cockney boss who runs some kind of factory. Thomas Lynch plays him with so much bug-eyed clownishness that he loses authority; in spite of his shabby suit, white hair, and beard, he seems more like an irritating cousin to Morrell than a thick-headed father-in-law. And, though Burgess is hilarious now and then, he seems hardly part of the family; I think Lynch loses any human dimension in his character by trying too hard to be Cockney. "James and me is come to a nunnerstannin," he tells Candida. "A honorable unnerstannin." Those aspirated vowels and mumbling consonants don't trip lightly from Lynch's tongue.

Matt Gottlieb plays Rev. Morrell with balance and grace; sometimes too much balance. By letting his beard grow a little he's managed to increase his resemblance to a young Shaw, but lacks that Shavian electricity until late in the play, when he pontificates or gets upset. Stacy Ross' Candida is similar. She has a Jody Foster steeliness and earnest sensitivity, she's nimble and commanding in her Victorian dress, but is she the great-souled woman Marchbanks admires? Not quite, somehow.

Part of the problem is a lack of sexual chemistry between Candida and Marchbanks. David Agranov plays the poet as a snobbish gentleman, bright and athletic like the talented Mr. Ripley, instead of moody and wilting like Morrissey. The characterization only works until he needs to be fearful, or passionate. Agranov has good mannerisms, such as crawling up the side of a chair in anguish, and I'm glad he doesn't overdo the sensitive-poet shtick, but you never doubt (with Morrell) that Marchbanks has reserves of emotional strength. And you never believe he's Candida's slave. Marchbanks is too vain.

Some of these criticisms may sound like quibbles; maybe they are. The cast as a whole does a tight job. Glazer uses a few directing flourishes (like a sitting-room upstairs for Candida, where we can watch her while she's being discussed) to remind the audience, subtly, who controls the Morrell house; the rest is a solid classical production. What I missed in the main actors was just the command of character that Emily Ackerman shows with Prossy Garnett. Rev. Morrell's personal secretary is marvelously complicated -- proper, prim, hot-tempered, crass, in love with Morrell, and unable to hold her alcohol. Ackerman not only hits each of these notes but makes Prossy personal, real. At first she seems bland, but by the time she leaves for good, Prossy has upstaged Burgess' wild Cockney comic relief. "We had champagne," she says from the level of the desk, on her knees in the third act, "I never tasted it before -- " and then crawls for the door in her petticoat, trying to seem dignified.

In Candida Shaw drew a marriage that was strong for reasons apart from romanticism or religion; Glazer makes this point onstage as well as in her director's notes. Candida simply wills what Ibsen's heroine rejects. Her final speech, with Morrell stuck in a child's red chair, sets everyone straight on just who has "strength" and "dignity" and all the other values the reverend ascribes to himself. Ross carries it off eloquently. "When there is money to give, he gives it," she says. "When there is money to refuse, I refuse it." Candida doesn't put herself on a pedestal, but Morrell's pretensions to solid strength have been obliterated, and even his tub-thumping author has made some kind of veiled declaration of need.


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