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An Imperfect Creation

by Ralph Hammann on July 25, 2013

By George Bernard Shaw, directed by Nicholas Martin, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through July 27


Too few people are familiar with the play that inspired My Fair Lady (and fewer still with the superior Leslie Howard/Wendy Hiller film version that proved most influential in the adaptation), which is a shame because the play is more pointed and humorous, if more problematic and daring in terms of its anti-romantic ending. In a production with dazzling designs, piquant supporting character actors, and a stunning central performance, the WTF rights this inequity.

Both a romantic comedy and a social satire, which decries class systems and patriarchies, Pygmalion is the story of the phonetics professor, Henry Higgins, who transforms the Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady and gets more than he bargained for. It is also a play about language at its most musical and literate, and it features the most lilting and clever of Shavian dialogue.

Sean Leonard and Lind in PYGMALION

Singing praise of the scenery usually bodes ill for the rest of the production, but Alexander Dodge’s grand sets for Covent Garden, Higgins’ laboratory and Higgins’ mother’s study deserve arias. As befits a play with vaulting and vaunted language, Dodge’s scenery provides the ideal home for Shaw’s soaring music. In particular, the laboratory brilliantly characterizes Higgins as a fanciful, colorful, complex, hyperactive man with a child’s indulgence and boundless curiosity. It also returns the most jaded of theater patrons to a state of childlike awe and amusement. As well, its transformation to the drawing room is the sort of elegant, theatrical wizardry to which every child reared on such silliness as Transformers should be exposed.

Unfortunately, the worthy Robert Sean Leonard falls short of filling the space with the larger-than-life, dominating personality and musical language of Higgins. Lines (the “victory” gloat) are thrown away, and laugh lines are stepped on. Present are the intelligence and hints of a suppressed attraction to Eliza. Missing is the enfant terrible, the steamroller, the playfully inveterate taunter. His Higgins is too neatly clothed and mannered, not quite careless enough in his contempt for convention, and seems cut more from the pattern of Rex Harrison’s Higgins than that which Shaw wrote, and which Leslie Howard perfectly created in the film. It’s more an error in casting; the role doesn’t suit the humility that generally accompanies Leonard’s stage and screen personas. Nor does it help that Howard, in one of the best screen performances of all time, has cast a long shadow.

So, too, has Wendy Hiller, but hers disappears under the radiance of Heather Lind’s Eliza. Lind delivers a defining performance that is commanding, truthful and original while being faithful to Shaw. From the moment Lind enters, we are completely charmed, irresistibly drawn in by her flower girl whom she renders in bold primary colors, which seem to belie the delicate pastels that she is also using and which will blossom as the performance develops. Sexy, smart, vulnerable and spirited, Lind is part clown, part princess, and eventually, a consort battleship of forthright wit and passion. Her enchanting transformation from urchin into lady is all the more impressive because, unlike in Shaw’s film script, it happens offstage, and Lind must subtly reveal the flower girl who still resides in the lady just as she has earlier hinted at the lady in the flower girl. If Shaw had met Lind, he might have found it exceedingly difficult to write an unromantic ending.

Don Lee Sparks’ Alfred P. Doolittle is hysterical and a most plausible father for Lind’s Eliza, just as  Maureen Anderman is a formidable and bitingly funny mother to Higgins. Paxton Whitehead expertly uncorks virtually every line of Col. Pickering for the essence of its dry effervescent humor.

Nicholas Martin handles all with aplomb and cleverly solves the problematic ending in a manner that might even satisfy Shaw.