Palm Beach Dramaworks Displays the Full Wisdom and Verve of George Bernard Shaw's "Candida"

There was a city living in the head of George Bernard Shaw. More than any playwright since, he had the ability to let his characters see the world from their own angles and report back on their views.

Shaw's plays have a particular verbal crackle, inspired by the playwright's love of the Marxist dialectic. Even ideas with which Shaw did not personally identify were granted an eloquence and patina of conviction that their partisans could rarely match. And at Palm Beach Dramaworks, J. Barry Lewis' fast, smart direction lends Shaw's words a bracing, liquid fluency.

Candida is the story of a day in the life of an East London household. It is autumn 1894. Candida Morell (Kim Cozort) is the lady of the house; its apparent master is a well-regarded socialist parson, the Rev. James Morell (John Leonard Thompson). Both Candida and the reverend are taken with a noble youth named Eugene Marchbanks (Will Connolly), a poet with notably off-kilter social skills.

Margery Lowe (left), Cliff Burgess,and John Leonard Thompson.
Alicia Donelan
Margery Lowe (left), Cliff Burgess,and John Leonard Thompson.

It arrives that Marchbanks has designs on Candida. He is in love with her and believes her divine — too good to soil herself in the shared labor of James Morell's socialist household. Marchbanks believes her "a woman with a great soul, craving for reality, truth, freedom, and being fed on metaphors, sermons, stale perorations, mere rhetoric." He asks the reverend: "Can a woman's soul live on your talent for preaching?"

What follows is a daylong struggle between the men — one young, insecure, boundlessly sensitive; the other mature, powerful, and robust. The fight occurs half in the shadows, as they design to keep their battle from the house's other inhabitants, all of whom contend with dramas and struggles of their own. The reverend's typist, Ms. Garnett (Margery Lowe), is understandably in love with her handsome employer and rather viciously abused by "scoundrelly" capitalist Mr. Burgess (played at Palm Beach Dramaworks as a happily addled doofus by John Felix). Mr. Burgess attempts to curry favor with the noble Marchbanks, even as his wealth and careless attitudes toward his employees are openly reviled by his son-in-law.

To watch a good production of Candida — and this is a very good production — is to witness the graceful untangling and articulation of a sticky web of relationships. Candida's best scene features neither Candida nor Morell; it is between Marchbanks and Ms. Garnett, the secretary, who is both an old maid and a stick-in-the-mud. Marchbanks' social awkwardness is temporarily undone by the presence of a person as inoffensive as Ms. Garnett. He waxes poetic and speaks of the elusiveness of love and the paradox that the very people most in need of love are those most afraid to ask for it. Ms. Garnett brings to bear the full weight of her Victorian stolidity to keep the conversation from progressing any further, muttering clichés and inanities, "My word"-ing him, begging to talk about the weather. All the while, actress Lowe works a potent magic with her face, which so far has been held in a rigid grimace, as though she were born with a lemon for a tongue. As Marchbanks waxes and Ms. Garnett sputters, new and heretofore unexpected emotions flicker across that face — flinty little expressions of fear, tiny and abortive articulations of hope, and most of all a horror that her persona is about to collapse, revealing the howling chasm of loneliness at her core. In these three or four minutes, Lowe almost walks away with the show.

If she doesn't, it's only because its actors give us so much so quickly. There is a deep truth about manhood in the oppositional persons of the Rev. Morell and Marchbanks. Here, the reverend, played by Thompson with fierce intelligence and big-heartedness, admits to a frailty he sees only dimly. His strength is the strength given him by others, bolstered by love and good faith. Connolly's Marchbanks — shifty, ill-at-ease both in his own skin and in the world he inhabits — knows none of these comforts and scorns them; he sees Thompson's borrowed strength as weakness, identical to his own, but less honest and therefore less worthy.

Neither man has the great, expansive understanding of Candida, whom Kim Cozort plays as an Athenian goddess: powerful beyond the ken of mortals or men, holding their worldly fates in her hands as surely as she once incubated them in her womb. She is inscrutable and transcendent. Like a microcosm of all womankind, the noble ideals, intricate politics, and grand dreams of men live or die by her dispensation. She hasn't been onstage five minutes before you understand why men would die or kill to win her affection. As we learn, it cannot be won. It can only be given.

 
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