Filler Victorian's Treatise

'Candida' Brings Contemporary Flare To An Age-Old Debate.
By Margaret Regan

OSCAR WILDE, THE rambunctious poet and playwright of 1890s London, once remarked that on the whole he'd rather not be a Socialist, as he preferred to keep his evenings free.

He might well have been making a dig at his co-playwright and fellow Irishman, George Bernard Shaw. Both playwrights were a succés fou of the late Victorian stage, but Shaw was also a political animal, a Fabian Socialist who was an inveterate speaker at evening meetings for his causes, including equal rights for women. And Shaw might well have been lampooning himself a bit when he created the character of Rev. James Morell, the earnest Christian Socialist who's at the center of Shaw's 1894 play, Candida.

Candida, now brought skillfully to the boards by the Arizona Theatre Company under the direction of Penny Metropulos, is a typical Shavian "drama of ideas," a witty domestic play that also investigates the great political issues of the day. Morell, played in appropriately stiff fashion by the lantern-jawed Mark Capri, sallies out each evening to denounce the depredations of late 19th century capitalists on the vast pool of London's working poor. But it's not until a supercilious young poet by the name of Eugene Marchbanks (Raymond L. Chapman) declares his love for Morell's wife, Candida, that Morell even stoops to consider what we would call the sexual politics in his own home.

Shaw may have named his play for the woman, but she's hardly as central to this drama about her own life as say, Nora, in A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, a playwright a generation older whom Shaw admired. In fact, the play, which takes place on a single day, unfolds as an emotional but highly entertaining debate between the two men, with each espousing an opposing but equally tired Victorian idea of what a woman ought to be.

Image Morell, the complacent, hopelessly pompous husband, loves his wife mainly because she has secured for him his own domestic tranquillity. He sees her as the accommodating angel of the house who not only slices the onions as necessary but leaves him free to pursue his own higher calling. Marchbanks is a pampered aristocrat who's horrified that his beloved Candida should be forced to perform lowly domestic chores. Candida, he believes, is a rarefied goddess who ought to live "where the marble floors are washed by rain and dried by the sun."

The affable, down-to-earth Candida, engagingly played by Robin Goodrin Nordli, is too busy with the day's work to take notice of this masculine debate raging within her home. (It's telling that the play's action takes place entirely on one set, the Morells' drawing room, designed by Norm Spencer. The Rev. Morell may go out every evening but his wife does not: A typical Victorian middle-class wife, she lives out her life mostly within the confines of her house.) It is only in the last act that Candida learns the two men have taken it upon themselves to analyze her life, and to order her to reconsider it. Candida is not amused.

But Shaw is too skilled a comic playwright to let his play degenerate into mere political debate. After a somewhat slow start in Act One, in which his characters outline the main ideas, the play accelerates into a madcap comedy rounded out by some stock characters. Shaw's indulged in a bit of stereotyping with Morell's secretary, who all too predictably is in love with her boss, but Terri McMahon brings so much rigid lunacy to the part that she steals more than a few scenes. Candida's father, Burgess, is a nouveau rich industrialist who allows Shaw some easy potshots (Burgess dislikes paying a living wage, he says, because it's "putting money into the pockets of workin' men that they dunno ow to spend") but he's a robustly comic figure robustly played by James J. Lawless.

Candida, the first Shaw play produced by ATC since Arms and the Man in 1988, is a classic in every sense of the word, open to fresh interpretation in every succeeding generation. Its debates on gender and class seem extraordinarily contemporary. If Shaw can be faulted for leaving Candida's own character and choices so little explored, his play is a welcome sendup of the surprisingly durable idea that men ought to answer the question, "What does a woman want?"

Arizona Theatre Company's production of Candida continues through March 2 at The Temple Of Music And Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets range from $17 to $26. For reservations and information call 622-2823. TW

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