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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 24, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

How to Stay Married (to the Opposite Sex)

The flowers on Rosie O’Donnell’s wedding bouquet were not yet wilted when director Lisa Peterson started rehearsals at McCarter Theater for George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 marriage play, “Candida.” Though separated by 100 years, neither Shaw nor Peterson could have known that by opening night Rosie and her bride, Kelli Carpenter, would be just one of more than 4,000 homosexual couples who had flocked to the secular altar of San Francisco’s City Hall to tie the knot.

Opening night for Shaw’s classic comedy “Candida” is Friday, March 26, for the production, in McCarter’s Matthews Theater, that continues to Sunday, April 11. Directed by Peterson, the production features Kate Forbes as the married woman Candida, Jeffrey Carlson as the alluring young poet Marchbanks, and Michael Siberry as Candida’s husband, the Reverend James Morell. Design is by Neil Patel (sets), Michael Krass (costumes), David Weiner (lighting), and Mark Bennett (composer).

“I am drawn to language plays. And I like plays where the characters are articulate, and hopefully in some unique way,” Peterson explains with enthusiasm during a lunchtime break at McCarter. “I’m more of a text than a sub-text person. I really love text. I’ve started doing Shakespeare a few years ago and that’s the greatest training ground for bringing life to a text. That’s why I’ve always liked Shaw.”

For a young director, Peterson has had considerable experience with Shaw. She directed her first Shaw around 1985 and “Candida” is her fifth. Born in Ireland in 1856, Shaw lived into his 90s, and died in 1950. However, almost all the Shaw plays Peterson has directed were written before 1900. They include “Misalliance” and “Major Barbara,” “Arms and the Man” at La Jolla Playhouse, and “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” produced last year at the Guthrie in Minneapolis.

“Candida” is the story of an impetuous young poet who comes between a progressive-minded clergyman and his charismatic wife. The wife, Candida, shrewdly puts the two men’s competing claims for her love to the test. This play, says Peterson, is “about marriage and art and domesticity and genius and the uneasy combination of those things.”

“Shaw was kind of obsessed with love triangles,” she continues. “He grew up with two fathers — that is, his mother had two men around the house, and there is often a kind of triangulation in his plays. This one, clearly, is all about that.”

As a young person in her 20s, “Candida” did not interest Peterson, but her interest has evolved. “‘Candida,’ I thought, was domestic — it wasn’t political enough for me then,” she says. “I think I must have read the play and thought, ‘She decides to stay at home and be a wife, yuck! — I don’t agree!’

“Now, almost 20 years later, I found it very moving. I find it’s a delicate play. It’s unusual for him. It’s an emotionally complicated play and unclassifiable. It’s hard to say if it’s a comedy or a drama,” she says. “What’s looming about the play to me is that I think he writes pretty honestly about the terrors of love, the terrors of commitment and partnership and marriage, and how even the most reliable seeming marriage can find itself in peril.”

Shaw was a great admirer of Henrik Ibsen and somewhat responsible for Ibsen’s popularity in England. “This was an homage, but also an inversion of Ibsen’s ‘Doll’s House,’ says Peterson. “Shaw’s feeling was that often in contemporary marriage — especially if you’re talking about a man with any kind of fame — that the man was often the doll in the house and not the wife.”

“The play asks you to think about marriage as an idea, beyond this particular marriage,” she says.

“Candida” takes place in the course of a single day and Shaw makes things change very quickly, Peterson explains. “The idea that this young poet might just be able to steal the wife away at first is a joke to the husband, and then very quickly it becomes terrifying to him.”

Peterson grew up in a suburb of Santa Cruz, California. Her father is an architect, now retired from teaching at Cal Poly, and the former campus planner at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her mother, once a secretary, is an artisan and weaver. She has a younger brother who is also an architect. Peterson is a resident director at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. She has previously directed at McCarter, most notably the new musical “The Night Governess” by Polly Pen.

“I started going to acting classes when I was about five. I was a ham and I wanted to be an actor. And all through high school I thought I wanted to be a musical theater actor.” As a teenager, Peterson also played viola and sang. A member of Yale’s Class of 1983, she majored in theater studies and English. Invited to join a directing class, she unexpectedly found her stride.

“When I took my first directing class, I had an immediate conversion. So I left Yale knowing that I wanted to direct and I went directly to New York,” she says.

Getting from her to there has been a 20 year project, but Peterson owns that “I’ve been very lucky.”

“I kind of fell into the world of the new play at Ensemble Studio Theater,” she says. “I fell into casting as a day job. And I lucked out. Casting turned out to be something I could make a living at for my first seven years in New York. I just absorbed the whole idea of how a director works on a new play, which was so different from what I learned in school.”

Working during the summers at the Hangar Theater in Ithaca, New York, Peterson developed an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” that brought her to the next level. It was showcased in Ithaca where Jim Nicola, artistic director of New York Theater Workshop, saw it and decided to bring it to New York.

“That was the turning point for me, and the beginning of my long association with New York Theater Workshop,” she says.

“One thing that I think I found a way to do was to collaborate successfully with living playwrights without losing my own point of view,” she says. “And that’s always a struggle. But I think that I learned to listen to the play and the playwright without completely disappearing myself.”

Peterson has staged the world premieres of Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories” at Manhattan Theater Club, and Tony Kushner’s “Slavs!” at New York Theater Workshop and Actors Theater of Louisville. Her New York premieres include “The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek” by Naomi Wallace, “The Model Apartment” by Donald Margulies, and Caryl Churchill’s “Traps” and “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire” for which she won an Obie Award.

“It’s hard for a director to find the balance between being too forceful and therefore not listening to the play or the playwright enough, and being too reverent,” she says. “I learned early on that you really had to say what you thought about the condition of the play. So I began to become a kind of dramaturg-director with a new play.”

The production will be presented in Victorian dress, but Peterson and her designers plan to “brush some cobwebs away” in terms of the design by create a metaphorical, rather than a literal, living space for the characters.

“Shaw is underappreciated today because he’s still produced the way we think he was produced 100 years ago. I always try to come at it in another way, but the play fights you, because it is about interpersonal choices and the characters are very finely observed English people from the late-19th century.”

Would Shaw have supported or opposed same-sex marriage?

“Shaw liked to voice the unpopular opinion — no matter what that was — so it’s always hard to guess what his politics would be,” Peterson replies with a laugh. “But I think that he would say that the idea of civil union would make sense. Because his own marriage was not necessarily a romance — he was famously celibate once he got married. I think he would absolutely see that marriage was a kind of practical reality. “

— Nicole Plett

Candida, Matthews Theater at McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Opening night for Lisa Peterson’s new production of G.B. Shaw’s “Candida.” Show runs to April 11. $27 to $48. Friday, March 26, 8 p.m

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