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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the March 31, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: ‘Candida’

Your eyes open wider as they take in the expanse of green over-scale green William Morris style wall paper that covers the high and wide walls of the Parsonage drawing room. Not hung, but propped against a wall, is a huge painting – Titian’s Virgin of the Assumption – that offers the only other pretension in a functional room taken up by an extra long table piled with pamphlets, journals, and letters. Designer Neil Patel’s impressive setting, where the Reverend James Morell does his work, also includes a roaring fire coming up from a grate in the floor downstage. It warms the space, but not nearly as much as it seems to spark those performing behind it.

The stage is ready for George Bernard Shaw’s "Candida." It is always been my belief that "Candida’s" popularity rests with it being Shaw’s shortest play and the one with the least number of incessant bellowers and talkers.

Thanks to director Lisa Peterson’s cannily enlightening and instantly unstuffy staging, and the genial ambiance created by her top-notch cast, I have all but changed my feelings about a play that I used to find unremittingly talky and tedious. The dialogue, if one isn’t careful, can sound like an endless stream of accusatory and subtly enlightened (for Victorian times) feminist propaganda, corrupted by the foolishness of the plot. Not so this time.

For starters, Kate Forbes is splendid as the scrupulously wise Candida, Shaw’s notion of the modern woman. Behind Forbes’ guise of sweetness, sincerity, and gentility, we get a glimpse of the real sum and substance of this woman. She does more than make it gracefully through the conversations and situations that demand her presence. Forbes, who played a beguiling Henriette in "The Learned Ladies" and appeared with Liev Schreiber in "Othello" at the Public Theater, may not have the definitive take on the scrupulously intelligent and inviting "Candida," but she sure has made her real and affecting.

Perhaps my annoyance and impatience with Shaw’s neo-socialist prescriptions and his patently phony arguments relating to duty, love and marriage needed the kind of freshly aerated influence of a director like Peterson, whose direction of Polly Pen’s opera "Night Governess," at McCarter, and of such bracing Off-Broadway plays as "Slavs," "The Fourth Sister," and "Collected Stories," among others have always made me glad I was in the theater.

Of all of Shaw’s plays none has so many characters I used to enjoy calling dreary idiots, the lot. No more. As the Reverend Morell, Candida’s self-absorbed husband, Michael Siberry has the advantage of being extremely charismatic and dashing, and his sing song diction a direct result of being tutored by Professor Higgins, by way of Rex Harrison, I suppose. What a joy it is to actually want to listen to the windbag’s potentially soporific discourses. A member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the distinctly and distinctively eloquent Siberry was last seen as McCarter in "Uncle Vanya."

Jeffrey Carlson, recently rescued from Broadway’s "Taboo," does go a bit over the top, as the 18 year-old love-smitten poet Marchbanks. He is given to virtually flying about the room and jumping atop tables and chairs, in an apparent attempt to express his arrested development. His presumably obligatory expressions of emotional recklessness, whimpering, and physical wild abandon find audience favor even if they seem a bit too puppy-dog precious even for his enamored Candida.

Polly Lee, an exceptional actress with growing U.K. and U.S. credits, is an unexpected delight as Proserpine, the Parson’s prim and proper secretary, a role that is usually frittered away. Lee finds more than a few opportunities to augment Proserpine’s distracted efficiency with a voice made up of squeaks and squeals. Lee’s genuinely funny responses, particularly her inspired inebriated presence after a night on the town and her subsequent exit are hilariously employed.

Robert Langdon Lloyd’s mutton chops admirably softened his altogether amusing performance as Candida’s coarse capitalist father. Michael Milligan offered assurance that there was more to him than just Morell’s mild-mannered assistant. Of particular interest and appreciation are the opening and closing stage directions heard as a voice over.

Nice going. All in all, "Candida" has been given a vibrant new life and a sparkle by a director who has figured out how to make this problematic antique of a play positively glow.

– Simon Saltzman

Candida, Matthews Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Lisa Peterson’s new production of G.B. Shaw’s "Candida." Show runs to April 11. $27 to $48.

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