British cultural exports to North America have often earned monikers that suit the temperament they inspire. The adulation greeting four lads from Liverpool who crossed the pond in 1964 inspired Beatlemania, but long before that landmark Baby Boomer phenomenon, another “mania” was inspired by a play opening July 21 at Perth’s Classic Theatre Festival.
“Candidamania” was an early 20th century sensation inspired by the first New York production of Candida, George Bernard Shaw’s warm and witty comedy that skewered Victorian notions of love, marriage, and friendship.
As Americans entered a new era marked by technological change and breaking with restrictive social and moral conventions, Candida fit the bill for a sophisticated, new kind of theatrical experience that was overwhelmingly applauded both because it was very funny but also thoughtful and provocative. Candidamania was described by the New York Sun as “a contagious disease, frequently caught in street cars, elevated trains, department stores, restaurants, and other places where people talk about what they did the night before. ‘Have you seen Candida?’ is the question of the hour. Thousands are dragging their friends to see Mr. Shaw’s play.”
The story revolves around Candida, the wife of a famous clergyman, the Reverend James Mavor Morell (played by Jeffrey Aarles). Played by Festival newcomer (and Ottawa-raised) Dana Fradkin, Candida’s good works, charm, and grace have certainly helped Morell in his career, and she is loved by one and all. That love so many feel for her becomes translated into a romantic obsession on the part of a passionate young Morell protégé by the name of Eugene Marchbanks (Perth-born Sean Jacklin), whose loving entreaties create a connubial crisis for the married couple.
As with all Shaw plays, Candida is peopled with unforgettable comic characters, who in this case include the prickly but dedicated Morell secretary Miss Proserpine (played by Anna Burkholder), the fawning Reverend Alexander Mill (Fraser Elsdon), and Candida’s father, Burgess (William Vickers), described as only Shaw could write as “a man made coarse and sordid by the compulsory selfishness of petty commerce, and later on softened into sluggish bumptiousness by overfeeding and commercial success.”
That comic trio were last seen on the Festival stage in the gripping thriller An Inspector Calls.
Those familiar with the history of the person voted Canada’s greatest Canadian, medicare founder Tommy Douglas, will also recognize something of Rev. Morell. As a Christian socialist who, in ministering to the poor and socially isolated in northeast London, Morell’s character reflects a significant social movement that made its mark on this country through the ideas and programs first introduced to Canada by the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF (forerunner to today’s NDP) took to heart the social teachings of Jesus, especially the invitation from the Sermon on the Mount to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and tend to those in prison or sick beds.
Director Laurel Smith, who worked at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake after staging a successful Toronto series of “Shaw in the City” productions (including an earlier production of Candida), says “Shaw continues to offer us so much given his understanding of human dynamics and how we relate to one another as acquaintances, friends, lovers, and spouses. Anyone who has ever been married or just deeply in love, with all the conflicting emotions that produces, will identify with many of the characters in this wonderful play.”
Smith points to the Classic Theatre Festival’s award-winning production of Shaw’s comedy Arms and the Man from last summer’s season as proof that Shaw still has “a great deal of resonance with today’s audiences, who appreciate not only his incredible wit and memorable turn of phrases, but also his ability to create very human situations that are universal and accessible for audiences everywhere.”
Discounted preview tickets for Candida, which begins July 21, are still available, and the play will run until August 13, Tues. to Sun at 2 pm, with 8 pm shows every Wed. & Sat. To see what inspired Britain’s first “mania” export of the 20th century, visit classictheatre.ca or call 1-877-283-1283.