By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Ron Ritchell
At the Lyric Stage, Boston, Through October 20

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Lyric Stage has mounted a seductively charming production of G.B. Shaw's "Candida", and for anyone inclined to respond to seduction and to cherish charm -- so long as both are kept in their place and don't interfere with one's long-term domestic happiness-- it is a delightful evening of theatre.

The pleasure starts even before the play. Designer Robert Kramer has done a St. Dominic's Parsonage drawing room of extraordinary beauty. In place of Shaw's prosaic window looking out onto a park that is the only pleasant sight in the dreary suburban parish, Kramer has provided an enormous Tiffany stained glass window, a masterpiece of the glazier's art, leaves and blossoms and tendrils all sinuous curves and swooning color. It is a wonderful touch: romantic, religious, sentimental --- the perfect backdrop for the fashionable artistic attitudes that the young poet Marchbanks will play out in front of it. Nature, and human nature, is shaking free of Victorian restrictions as the nineteenth century ends. Humanity may stride forward with the Reverend Morell into sober Socialism, or strike out on a poetic pilgrimage with Eugene Marchbanks to revive the chivalric past. Which deserves to have a Candida, an ideal woman, as companion? As Director Ron Ritchell says in his notes: "we cheer for the genuinely charming Candida, who remains one of the theater's most beguiling women."

There were times when Shaw himself pretended not to approve of this sort of woman, and maintained that his portrait of the perfect darling of a wife who is her husband's "greatest treasure on wife, my mother, my sisters: the sum of all loving care to me" actually revealed the heroine of his play to be a Medusa who when looked full in the face turns a man to stone. The author went so far as to claim that the play was a response to Ibsen's "A Doll's House", wherein Shaw demonstrated that a husband can be the partner who is the oppressed and infantilized plaything. Even Shaw's champion Eric Bentley was been taken in by this nonsense, saying "How savage is the ending of "Candida".. the curtain has to be rung down to save us from the Strindberg play that would have to follow." Bentley's assumption is that Candida's husband will go to pieces, once he has realized that the confident superiority which makes him so effective at the Good and Important Work of preaching and social activism is dependent on the manipulations of his wife.

But audiences, who made the play a hit in 1900 and have cheered many revivals since, know better. There's nothing like a few home truths from a loyal spouse from time to time to shape up a person's character.

Actresses have burned to play Candida: to stand between two men declaring their undying love and tell them both that they are acting like little boys. The Lyric's Donna Sorbello embodies maternal warmth and physical grace. Sorbello is particularly delicious when she is confiding the growing affection between herself and her young admirer Eugene Marchbanks to her husband, so confident that he will understand and approve the relationship. Shaw sets the actress a real challenge in his description of Candida as " a woman who has found that she can always manage people by engaging their affection, and who does so frankly and instinctively. ..but Candida's serene brow, courageous eyes ..signify largeness of mind and dignity of character to ennoble her cunning in the affections." The play is Shaw's tribute to the series of admirable women, most of them safely and firmly married, whose generous support and understanding made his own career possible. Sorbello has that necessary touch of nobility. One always feels behind her sometimes cruel candor the larger purpose it is to serve.

Eugene Marchbanks, the absurdly romantic18-year-old poet who is in love with Candida, is an odd figure. He "understands everything", Candida says, and yet he has the social grace of a badly-trained puppy. Colin Stokes is quite young, and looks even younger. Ritchell has encouraged Stokes to give Eugene's childishness full physical expression: Stokes cowers, he whimpers, he shrieks, he flings himself onto the furniture and dives under a table. It's amusing, and it is the tiniest bit too much -- which is just right. Eugene's behavior is a kind of first draft of a poet's love affair -- he'll get the raw impulse out now, and clean up the style and regularize the meter later.

Peter Bubriski is a splendid Morell, a genuinely good man who happens to be matinee idol handsome and has a rich oratorical tone to even his most modest remarks. It is perfectly plausible that the church secretary, the "lady typewriter" Miss Proserpine Garnett, is in love with Bubriski's Morell, and that most of his female parishioners share "Prossy's complaint". Reverend Morell is, at bottom, every bit the romantic the poet Marchbanks is, but Morell's passion takes the form of Christian Socialism. The pastor's shining righteousness would also be a bit too much, were he not restrained by the humbling example of the Social Gospel, and the pomposity-pricking candor of his down-to-earth wife.

Director Ritchell is also performer Ritchell, playing Candida's vulgar businessman father, the "old scoundrel" Burgess. It is great fun to watch the conversation go on over Burgess' head, and then see his eyes light up as it touches on the few topics of interest to him: money, the peerage, food, drink, the building trade. Jonathan Duke is suitably shallow as the curate Lexy Mill, in love with both Morells but understanding neither. Susan McConnellis feisty as well as prissy as Prossy, and she has excellent comic timing, especially in the teetotaling-spinster- gets- tiddly -on- champagne bit. But McConnell's a tad too young for the pathos of a woman who has thrown away her chances in order to be near her male ideal.

More than a hundred years have passed since Shaw pleased London by his portrait of a marriage in "Candida". The "Woman Movement" that was a novelty then has swelled into a Second and Third Wave, and washed back as Postfeminism. But although much of what is expected of women in society has changed, the Home Front is remarkably resilient. Shaw's jokes are still funny, because the poses and power struggles are still going on. As Morell says, "Even at home, we sit as if in camp, encompassed by a hostile army of doubts." The working out of "Candida"'s plot is a matter of intense interest, because the stakes are the highest: the earthly paradise, the marriage of true minds. Cynics may scoff, and imagine their Strindbergian fourth acts: but the happily married will emerge from Shaw's "pleasant comedy" holding hands and beaming, confirmed in their connubial bliss.