Classic Theatre Festival delivers a worthy Candida

PERTH, Ontario — One of the pleasures of an Ottawa Valley summer is Perth’s Classic Theatre Festival, which has an impressive track record for mounting quality fare.

Its current production of Candida, Bernard Shaw’s 1894 play about turmoil within the household of an Anglican vicar, is no exception.

On the surface, this may seem no more than a comedy about the unsettling impact of a romantic young poet named Eugene Marchbanks when he enters the lives of James Morell, a cleric whose Socialist convictions and gift for rhetoric have won him public prominence, and Morell’s beguiling wife, Candida. But Laurel Smith’s discerning production finds deeper currents in the central situation — which involves the youthful Eugene’s infatuation with Candida, an infatuation so intense and so openly critical of Morell that it leaves the latter increasingly insecure about her love.

The play’s ironies start emerging in Jeffrey Aarles’s performance as the increasingly beleaguered vicar. Aarles effectively contrasts Morell’s smug self-admiration, be it over the perfection of his marriage or his public persona, with the quivering bundle of uncertainties that emerges once he’s accused by Eugene of being an unworthy husband. In brief, an impertinent young cuckoo has arrived in the nest to strip away Morell’s pretensions and leave him vulnerable.

Sean Jacklin gives us a Marchbanks whose puppy-dog devotion to Candida might seem to border on the neurotic, were it not for his youthful moral passion (a quality always celebrated by Shaw) and his dismaying capacity for recognizing the fault lines in an “adversary” like Morell and taking advantage of them. But Jacklin’s Eugene is vulnerable too: he is putty in Candida’s hands in that beautifully staged scene where he tries to woo her with his poetry while she, with subtle authority, remains in ultimate control of the situation.

The moment will come at the end of the play when Candida must choose between her adoring husband and this passionate young poet — and for her this will require her to determine which is the weaker of the two. And again irony will rear its head.

But before that final curtain, the evening will provide other pleasures. Designer Roger Schultz gives us a Victorian parsonage of cluttered authenticity. Anna Burkholder delivers some amusing moments as Morell’s secretary, prim and proper on the outside but scarcely able to contain her feelings for her boss, whom she considers to be the Church of England’s equivalent of a matinee idol. Fraser Elsdon manages to bring some life to the thankless role of Morell’s young curate. And the ever dependable William Vickers contributes a thoroughly entertaining portrayal of Candida’s outrageous father, an engaging scallywag who will keep his eye on the main chance even when he’s in the house of God.

Finally, there is Dana Fradkin as Candida — kind, beautiful competent, tantalizingly remote when it comes to defining the allure that leaves both her husband worshipful but dangerously complacent and Eugene in a state of mushy adoration.

Shaw subtitled this play a “mystery” and scholars have been arguing for years about what GBS meant by this. One theory even saw a biblical allegory at work with Morell and Candida as Joseph and Mary and Marchbanks as their unruly son — and to be sure Shaw, in a letter to Ellen Terry, once equated

Candida with the “Virgin Mother.” GBS may well have been in a mischief-making mood here, but on the other hand he himself seemed so ambivalent about her that she could well comprise the “mystery” lurking in his mind when he wrote the play. “She seduces Eugene just exactly as far as it is worth her while to seduce him,” Shaw wrote in 1905. “She is a woman without character in the conventional sense. Without brains or strength of mind, she would be a wretched slattern or voluptuary. Consider the poet. She makes a man of him finally by showing him his own strength.”

Much of what Shaw said 112 years ago could be applied to Fradkin’s performance. But so could the playwright’s 1937 observation that Morell is Candida’s pet and her doll and that is she who “makes all his public triumphs possible.” So we watch the Candida that Fradkin gives us in Perth, and the enigma persists. That is how it should be.

The Classic Theatre Festival production of Candida continues in Perth to August 13, 2017. – Jamie Portman, Capital Critics Circle

Candida: breezy and fast-moving at the Perth Classic Theatre Festival..

George Bernard Shaw considered his 1895 domestic comedy Candida one of his Plays Pleasant. In part an ironic antidote to A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama about a woman’s fate in a male-dominated society, Candida also offers an indirect reference to Shaw’s own background. (His mother left his father for her musician friend.)

The title character of his comedy is asked to choose between her somewhat pompous clergyman husband and the 18-year-old aristocratic poet who adores her, is horrified that she helps with household chores — and sends her to sleep with his poetry. The poet has shaken the minister’s confidence in his domestic contentment , particularly when he returns home to find Candida and the young man in cosy repose by the living-room fire. But her decision is not difficult, says Candida, as she chooses the weaker of the two men.

As directed by Laurel Smith, the Classic Theatre Festival production of Candida is breezy and fast moving and the Victorian era is underlined by the intended clutter of Roger Schultz’s set and Renate Seller’s costumes.

While the characters tend to be stereotypes — the idealized wife, the spinster secretary yearning for her employer, the roguish businessman, the nervous poet and the speechmaking socialist — the cast develop characterizations that do much to create individuals.

William Vickers, clearly having fun with the role as Candida’s scoundrel of a father, is a particular delight,. Dana Franklin, as Candida, is all charm and warmth, with Anna Burkholder as the barking, stiff secretary Miss Garnett, as her counterpoint.

The complete contrast between Jeffrey Aarles as the Reverend Morell — driven, idealistic but insecure — and Sean Jacklin as the foppish, velvet-clad poet Eugene Marchbanks — nervous, but determined and sure of his love — is equally effective.

The Classic Theatre Festival production of Candida continues in Perth to August 13, 2017 – Iris Winston, Capital Critics Circle

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