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Shaw Festival's "Widowers' Houses"

By Grant Golden

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario – Widowers' Houses, Shaw's first play and the one in which he experimented with his own critique of Victorian society alongside the popular melodramatic conventions of the time, had a nebulous beginning. It was his friendship with theatre critic William Archer that prompted Shaw to write the play in the first place, Shaw providing the dialogue and Archer the plot. But Shaw soon veered from that agreement, not even tackling Archer's plot until Act II and then by his own admission "using it all up" within a few pages. Archer was not pleased and a parting of the ways followed.

The Shaw Festival's production of this rarely performed play is a welcome addition to the season, particularly since the play's marriage between the theatrical conventions of the time and its brutally honest look at at the quandaries of a wealthy society's dubiousness in looking after its poor and underprivileged is very much a contemporary problem. As well, Joseph Ziegler's fine production is cleanly executed and crystal clear in its intent. All the major characters in the play save one are pillars of society, the kind of people who keep their aristocratic ways unapproachable and even purport to having consciences about the lesser stratum, though economic realities often compromise their intentions.

The very wealthy Sartorius, a stern dictator except in dealing with his pretty but spoiled daughter, Blanche, is a self-made man who is used to having his own way. This is a part made for Jim Mezon who can carry both the elegance and the commanding air needed for the role of Sartorius. When the play opens he and his daughter Blanche are finishing a holiday at a German hotel after a Rhine cruise in which Blanche has enjoyed the company of a young doctor, Harry Trench. Accompanied by his stuffy conservative relative William de Burgh Cokane (Patrick Gilligan), a man given to dictating propriety vocally, the shy Trench, played by Dylan Trowbridge, has all the openness of a young puppy and few high born airs even though his family is blue blood.

Asking the delighted Blanche to marry him, Sartorius gives Trench one condition for the match: that his daughter is completely accepted by Trench's family and will be given the proper entree to society. At first it seems a reasonable request, but Mezon cleverly injects a shadow of a doubt which only Cokane seems to catch. "Ask him how he makes his money," Cokane cautions Trowbridge. Sartorius' vague answer: "Real Estate"

Up to this point, it's not much more than a shipboard romance that turns out quite splendidly with no glitches (Trowbridge's family is more than pleased about his engagement), but soon the darker side of Sartorius' business comes to light. Trowbridge and Cokane who are staying at the Sartorius estate back in London learn from Lickcheese, a recent ex-employee of Sartorius, that it is not just apartment slums that he owns but in fact decrepit and unsafe buildings in which families with starving children are gouged for rent money. Lickcheese himself, Jim Millard in the role proving his versatility in playing everything from drama to comedy, does a formidable double turn here as the scruffy poor rent collector begging for his job, then achieving wealth and respectability through his own innate streets smarts in the manner of Pygmalion's Alfred Doolittle when he returns at the end of the play as the wealthy real estate promoter ready to form a budding partnership with Sartorius.

When Sartorius' true business dealings comes to light, the disenchanted Trench breaks off his engagement to Blanche, until his own family's mortgage in Sartorius real estate holdings proves theirs - and his - complicity in the affair. It's here where the genius of the play takes shape. No one is painted black or white and we're not asked to judge. In fact, Sartorius explanation to Trench about the economics of slum housing isn't rendered by a distasteful man but in fact a likable one. Sartorius becomes more admirable because of his honesty, Cokane less so because of his pretensions, while Trench, dependent upon his family's income, is simply a honorable person with all the right intentions but possessing the wrong arguments. He ruefully shakes hands with Sartorius signifying his defeat in bucking the system. And he wins back Blanche which is indeed a dubious achievement.

There's not a dull moment, however, even during the wordy first act in which nothing much truly happens (Shaw was right about not getting to the plot until the next act). There is one puzzling characterization, however. Blanche, Sartorius daughter is quick tempered and can be downright nasty to the servants, but is she as psychotic as Lisa Norton makes her out to be? Perhaps Ziegler had something in mind to turn Lisa into a surly, unattractive and rather alarming creature who would frighten a grizzly never mind the unassuming, slightly built Dr. Trench who looks as if one of her tirades would send him into a coma. This is surely an instant when some tempering would work in both Norton's and the play's favor. It's the only wrong note in an otherwise sterling production.

The above play description is courtesy of the Shaw Festival website.

Click the "listen" icon above to hear WBFO's Theatre Critic Grant Golden's review of Widowers' Houses. It continues through October 4th at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.