Story: George Bernard Shaw is a force to be reckoned with in late 19th century London; you need only ask him for verification. The vain scribe, confident of his own intellectual superiority, is a firebrand in the Fabian Society, a group dedicated to the transformation of society with improved social conditions for all. Shaw meets regularly with his close friends Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb to advance their common cause.
Shaw also is a prolific writer, although none of his novels or plays has yet to be published or produced. Meanwhile, he makes a living writing theater and music reviews. For pleasure, the unrepentant bachelor has a habit of favoring married women who are ignored by their husbands.
Beatrice has a predilection for matchmaking, and has currently set up Shaw with an artist who is painting his portrait. She is surprised, though, when wealthy benefactor Charlotte Payne Townsend takes a romantic interest in the irascible Irishman. Charlotte abhors sex, but Shaw doesn’t see much value in it, either, so perhaps they could make a match -- except that Shaw adamantly and resolutely refuses to even remotely consider the possibility of marriage. Sounds hopeless for Charlotte, but she’s pretty clever in her own right.
Highlights: John Morogiello, playwright in residence at the Maryland State Arts Council, penned this intriguing 2006, two-act work that resonates with wit and charm. His four characters are erudite and appealing in their own eccentric way, particularly Shaw and Townsend. The West End Players Guild, under the astute direction of Robert Ashton, has crafted a captivating and clever interpretation, for the most part, in its St. Louis premiere of Morogiello’s imaginative excursion into the inner workings of Shaw’s brash self-confidence.
Other Info: Unfortunately, the weak element in the WEPG presentation is Matt Hanify, who plays the title role. That comes as a surprise, given Hanify’s polished work in such previous WEPG efforts as Copenhagen, Mauritius and The Seafarer. Here, however, for whatever reason Hanify seems uncomfortable and intent on rushing his lines, rather than savoring the bon mots that Morogiello so generously furnishes. It’s jarring at first and, while an observer can settle in and accept his performance, it just doesn’t measure up to his previous standards.
Conversely, Suki Peters is simply enchanting as Charlotte. Her careful and meticulous interpretation of Charlotte’s patrician character is revealed in a tilt of the head, a sideways glance or her precise, clear diction, all of which bring a resolute conviction to the role.
Jeff Kargus and Nancy Nigh both are splendid as the Webbs, a couple who at first sound somewhat radical but gradually reveal their own hang-ups and foibles. They play well off each other as well as opposite the two primary players. Both show a clear command and understanding of their characters, who are integral to Morogiello’s witty excursion into dramatic speculation about historical figures.
Ashton’s pacing is consistent and he shrewdly utilizes the bi-level performance space at the Union Avenue Christian Church. Renee Sevier-Monsey’s lighting design adequately illuminates the action on her comfy set, which is adapted for two different locales.
Rebeca Davidson furnishes amusing props, including a purposefully ridiculous portrait of Shaw courtesy of multi-talented artist Marjorie Williamson. Sound designer Chuck Lavazzi adds ironic touches of Elgar’s Enigma Variations to underscore the proceedings, while the players are handsomely attired in finery of the era courtesy of costume designer Tracy Newcomb-Margrave.
If Hanify can slow down his runaway-train interpretation and convey the impression that he’s enjoying his assignment, Engaging Shaw can be even more of a delight.
Play: Engaging Shaw
Group: West End Players Guild
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Enright Blvd.
Dates: February 14, 15, 16, 17
Tickets: $20; contact 367-0025 or WestEndPlayers.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb