It’s hard to believe that George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is a century old. It was written in 1913, staged almost immediately, and published in 1916. And from the very beginning audiences refused to accept the playwright’s written ending. The original cast changed the final scene so that romance could prosper at the expense of real life. And even to this day, producers often jiggle the dialogue to allow a more romantic ending. The musical based on the play, “My Fair Lady,” would have made Shaw blanch with indignation.
In fact he wrote an essay after the play first opened to explain why his final scenes should not be altered. And audiences refused to accept it.
And so the current staging of “Pygmalion” at the Princeton Summer Theater at Hamilton Murray Theater on the University campus may not please everyone. Director R.N. Sandberg has stated clearly that he is basing this production on the 1916 script that Shaw defended so fiercely. In the process he eschews any temptation to admit a romance between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, and the characterizations show it.
You will remember much of the plot: How Higgins, a London speech expert (who claims he can spot a person’s birthplace merely by listening to his speech, within six miles, less if the speaker is urban) is challenged to turn a Cockney flower girl in a society duchess in six months. He does so, but without paying much attention to the effect it will have on his subject.
The cast is magnificent: Jake Robertson plays Higgins with such intensity that he occasionally loses the character, but he certainly shows the proper degree of ego, and there is never a doubt that he will win his challenge whatever the odds and no matter how disconcerting to the audience. A recent Princeton graduate, he will be entering the masters program at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Bits Sola obviously has recovered from an ankle injury that had her on crutches for the last show (“Metamorphoses”) and plays Eliza with great style and sensitivity. Born and living in London she speaks the language like a native, and her second act scene with Robertson is as tense as ever seen and contrasts beautifully with an earlier section with the madams Eynsford Hill (mother and daughter Sarah Cuneo and Caroline Hertz), which is played for comedy.
Ross Barron, the youngest of the troupe, plays Pickering, the oldest character with aplomb. Watch for a strong future for this actor — he spent last summer studying theater in London. Maeve Brady, by contrast is spending her third summer with PST, and her role as Mrs. Higgins is another in a long series of wonderfully conceived characterizations. Also back for a third time is Evan Thompson, as Eliza’s father and self-proclaimed member of the “deserving poor.” He rather casually steals both scenes in which he appears.
Director Sandberg apparently has designed the set as well, and in a program note he calls it “a framing device to try to capture what Shaw meant when he subtitled the play ‘A Romance in Five Acts’.” It involves multiple large picture frames (no pictures) and six rather prominent white busts — interesting and surprisingly effective.
Pygmalion, Princeton Summer Theater, Murray-Dodge, Princeton University, through Sunday, July 19, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2. $22-$27.50. 732-997-0205 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.