Shaw play ends twice as nicely Review: Options in 'The Millionairess' are just an excuse for Theatre Hopkins to perform doubly well.

June 20, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There aren't a lot of opportunities to see George Bernard Shaw's 1935 play, "The Millionairess," and there are even fewer to see it with both of the endings the playwright devised.

Theatre Hopkins has seized those opportunities and mounted a production that is not only the most splendid of its season, but one of its most splendid ever. And, even though it breaks Theatre Hopkins' annual alfresco tradition -- outdoor performances at Evergreen House will now be limited to every other year -- "The Millionairess" shines as brightly as if it were under the stars.

The play focuses on one of Shaw's favorite betes noires -- capitalism, represented by the wealthiest heiress in England. Patricia Coleman's Epifania is, as she puts it, "the plutocrat of plutocrats," and Coleman conveys that aristocratic loftiness from her upturned chin to the refined tones with which she delivers Shaw's sparkling prose.

Extraordinary Epifania and her ordinary husband, an athlete named Alistair, are mismatched. But she is equally ill-suited to the gentleman she sets her sights on next -- an Egyptian doctor, whose name she doesn't know and who receives no further identification in the script.

The doctor and the heiress, however, gave Shaw the opportunity to establish the sort of ideological debate on which his plays thrive. In this case, that debate is framed by both characters' determination to live up to their parents' deathbed wishes.

Epifania promised her dying father she would only marry if her prospective husband could turn 150 pounds sterling into 50,000 in six months. In turn, the doctor promised his dying mother he would only marry after his prospective bride had earned her living "alone and unaided for six months."

But the doctor's vow to marry a hard-working woman is only the start of the differences between him and the idly rich Epifania. Dedicated to caring for the poor and totally uninterested in money, he is the flip side of Epifania, for whom money is a religion -- the worship of power.

Most of the weight of the play falls on Epifania, who embodies the unstoppable distaff drive Shaw called the "Life Force." She's even supposed to have a pulse so strong, its slow, steady beat wins the heart of the reluctant doctor. And, the prideful tenacity with which Coleman conveys Epifania's singleness of purpose almost makes us believe her pulse is a wonder of science.

Though Joseph Valadez's portrayal of the doctor seems wishy-washy by comparison, he is, after all, supposed to be Epifania's polar opposite. The production, adeptly directed by Suzanne Pratt, includes many strong supporting performances, including those of David Lee Simmons as Epifania's unfortunate, commonplace husband; Heather Osborne as the sweet nonentity he loves; Mark Redfield as a bemused, cool-headed attorney; and Donald Hart and Carol Mason in the small but colorful roles of the proprietors of a sweatshop where Epifania seeks employment.

As to the two endings -- it doesn't spoil the fun to reveal that director Pratt first presents the conventional one, in which everything concludes happily ever after. Then the character of the attorney steps forward and introduces Shaw's ending for noncapitalist countries.

The idealistic fervor with which Epifania and the doctor speak of beginning a new life in Russia is more than a little dated now -- a situation Theatre Hopkins reinforces with the tongue-in-cheek device of bathing the scene in red light. Still, the ever-argumentative Shaw would probably have loved the idea of presenting both endings back to back, and you can't help but wonder what kind of storybook ending he would have come up with in 1996.

'Millionairess' Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2: 15 p.m. Sundays, 7: 30 p.m. June 30. Through July 7

Tickets: $10 and $12

Call: (410) 516-7159

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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