STAGE GEORGE Bernard Shaw's ''Candida'' without care, and you run the risk of losing your audience. Do it as well as Center Stage is doing it, and you're likely to please everybody.
Do the play carelessly, and the minister will end up a blundering bore. Do his wife carelessly, and she may wind up being unsympathetic, even irritating. Do Marchbanks off key, and he can be impossible.
At Center Stage, all the leading players are on key. Richard Poe, as Rev. Morell, is righteous without being pompous.
Joyce O'Connor, as his wife, Candida, handles the second act with extreme caution, delivering the lines in a manner that soothes rather than annoys.
Benjamin White is Eugene Marchbanks, the poet Candida has found in a park and has invited to her home. He falls in love with her. He is painfully, agonizingly enamored, so much so that he cannot bear the idea of her doing housework.
In other hands, Marchbanks might be intolerable, an 18-year-old pain who should be spanked. White, by playing the role full throttle, makes him bearable, amusingly so.
The boy, of course, has all the answers. He considers the reverend unworthy of Candida and says so. He will take the woman away from her husband if he can. The husband is uncertain of what has happened between his wife and the house guest, after he has left them alone. When he returns, he demands to know what has transpired.
Shaw was not above sexual innuendo. The scene in which the husband and the boy duel, verbally, is an entertaining exercise in euphemism.
Shaw wrote ''Candida'' in 1894. The play wasn't that well received in London. It did much better over here and for several decades, was used as a vehicle by a parade of actresses who saw the play as a showcase for their particular talents.
Put O'Connor down as one of the better Candidas. Put this production down as one of the better versions of this comedy, one that has been staged with admirable polish by director Rick Davis.
Davis might tighten the first act, but that's about the only negative thing that may be said about the production.
''Candida'' will remain at Center Stage through Feb. 10. Louise Roberts is Prosperine, secretary to Morell, Jon Krupp is a fellow reverend, and Kenneth Gray is Candida's father, a businessman whose mind is not receptive to progress. They, too, contribute to this most agreeable package.
*** George Bernard Shaw's comedy about a young poet who falls in love with the wife of a minister and tells the minister than he will take the woman from him.
CAST: Louise Roberts, Richard Poe, Jon Krupp, Kenneth Gray, Joyce O'Connor, Benjamin White
DIRECTOR: Rick Davis
RUNNING TIME: Two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission