manifesto: (l-r) Elbrick and Mark Nelson in Mrs. Warren’s
Tramp Is a Lady
George Bernard Shaw, directed by Anders Cato
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Sept.
A singular genius who saw though pretense and hypocrisy, George
Bernard Shaw is needed now more than ever before. Shaw looked
out on the world, saw socioeconomic and political injustice
and wrote plays and other salvos that are as relevant today
as they ever were. Part of his genius lay in his ability to
find a worthy target, create complex arguments that thoroughly
considered multiple points of view, and then create believable
characters who lived the ideas. Far from being mere polemical
mouthpieces for Shaw, the characters engage us, and we vicariously
live the repercussions of the ethical/moral choices the characters
make. He wrote to entertain, educate and effect change.
And he often did it through the most imaginative and controversial
of means, as in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which closed
on opening night in New York City, with the cast being arrested.
This is because of the nature of Mrs. Warren’s profession,
and it is not disclosing too much here to reveal that she
got her start in life as a prostitute. That may have offended
Victorian audiences in itself, but Shaw allows her an excellent
defense of her actions. Then he goes several complications
further, and by the end of the play he has drawn highly unfavorable
parallels to commerce and industry, corporations and politicians,
and succeeds in highly original fashion to create one of the
theater’s most stunning feminist heroes in the character of
Mrs. Warren’s astonishing daughter, Vivie Warren.
As the play begins, Vivie has no idea as to the nature of
her absent mother’s occupation, profits from which have paid
for Vivie’s education and upper-class lifestyle. When she
finds out, Vivie, a very proper, prudish and proud young woman,
has her foundations shaken. But this is just a prelude to
the climax where she will have the very essence of her conscience,
values and courage put to the test in a final confrontation
between mother and daughter
With Anders Cato’s astute direction, the characters come fully
to life and Shaw’s issues are delivered with intelligence,
passion and clarity without ever sounding didactic.
Walter Hudson is scarily effective as Sir George Crofts, a
consummate heel and the smiling embodiment of corporate evil
who keeps the machinery of social oppression well-oiled to
keep himself well-heeled.
Stephen Temperley humorously bumbles about without resorting
to stereotype as the hypocritical clergyman, while Randy Harrison
plays his useless, spoiled son, Frank, with a persuasive charm
that, aside from his Adonis-like handsomeness, is his chief
means of survival. But Harrison, who seems to improve on excellence
each successive year at BTF, provides dimension in also emphasizing
the humanity Shaw has given him.
Lisa Banes is a dynamic Mrs. Warren, who unlike some, retains
the beauty that once got her into her profession as an escape
from a worse fate in mills and factories. Resplendent in Olivera
Gajic’s rich costumes, Banes finds a perfect blend of elegance
and earthiness as she confidently rides out Shaw’s word storm.
The most complex role, however, is that of Vivie, and Xanthe
Elbrick is splendid as Shaw’s vital protagonist. Vivie must
travel a great arc as she grows from an energetically self-assured
youth into a daughter who softens with doubt and compassion
only to toughen into a pioneer feminist. Completely natural
in her beauty, Elbrick continually projects an alert intelligence
that could care less about that beauty. When her education
is complete, she becomes the consort battleship to which Henry
Higgins ultimately compares Eliza Doolittle.
Aided by Carl Sprague’s set, which mixes theatricalism with
selective realism, and Dan Kotlowitz’ lighting, which ranges
from the pastoral to the expressionistic, Cato expertly navigates
the play from the sunlit country to the darkness of industrial
London. Most impressive are the startling scene changes effected
by eight factory girls choreographed as cogs in a machine
driven by the dynamo of Scott Killian’s exciting and invaluable
original musical score and sound design. Occasionally a worker
will pause to consider an existence beyond. Brilliant.
Lillian Hellman, directed by David Jones
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through
I am nearly speechless at the wit, construction and power
of Lillian Hellman’s writing in this late, very neglected
drama about aging, lying and emotional blackmail set in a
resort town on the Gulf of Mexico. What at first seems as
if it might be a study in decay along the lines of Tennessee
Williams, very quickly becomes all Hellman at her sharpest,
most comic, most rueful and most brilliant. It is loaded with
richly developed scenes in which Hellman puts fully dimensional
characters through various permutations and exciting collisions
that expose their lies and illusions. The process of watching
it becomes compulsive, so much so that when it nears the end
of its nearly 165 minutes (two 10-minute intermissions included),
one is not ready to have it end. This is not because it feels
incomplete; it’s because one so seldom is afforded the company
The plot and plottings are far too complex to explain here,
but the gist of it concerns a slowly moldering Southern mansion,
the Tuckerman guesthouse, in which Constance Tuckerman (Allison
Janney) is trying to preserve vestiges of an era of decorum
that is inexorably slipping away. That is to say, she is trying
to save the illusion of her youth, an action that is also
informed by her attempt to give her French niece, Sophie (Mamie
Gummer), the sort of aristocratic upbringing she would miss
in postwar France of 1949. The importance of youth is also
reflected in Constance’s reluctance to see her former beau,
Nick Denery (John Benjamin Hickey), for the parasitic bounder
that he is, as opposed to the great artist she would have
The other characters all deal with the problem of the sense
of meaninglessness that is brought on by an ever more acute
awareness of the fact that one is going to die. Hellman is
concerned with the accounting for wasted lives and the lies
we tell ourselves to help us get through the day.
Janney is, of course, excellent as she finely hones the nuances
of her character. Part of her achievement lies in the fact
that she recedes into the ensemble; she doesn’t for a minute
try to command the stage, but shares all graciously and is
all the more powerful for doing so.
Periodically there are performances that tend to inspire one
to want to leap onto the stage to strangle the actor as opposed
to the annoying character. Not so with Hickey’s portrait of
an artist as a loathsome man. The proof in Hickey’s authoritative
performance lies in its uncomfortable depth.
As Mary, the family matriarch, Elizabeth Franz wrests every
drop of acid from her lines, resulting in more laughter than
one could possibly have guessed. She also grounds the play.
It is in this character that the author’s voice rings most
familiarly with both wit and unvarnished wisdom.
Finally, there is Gummer, whose physical similarity to her
mother, Meryl Streep, is stunning. Indeed, her skill with
a French accent, which accents her difference and seeming
fragility in a strange and volatile environment, puts one
uncannily in mind of Streep. Watching Gummer evolve from a
nervously deferential girl into a young woman with spine and
surprising resourcefulness is one of the production’s greatest
The picture of these lives in collapse or near-collapse is
both devastating and endlessly fascinating as directed by
Jones with a dream cast in this tight production. In choosing
The Autumn Garden, Roger Rees does an invaluable service
in rescuing a forgotten masterpiece from obscurity.