Olney's `Candida' belabors the obvious

Solid performances illustrate Shaw's `religious' comedy

TheaterReview

May 31, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

George Bernard Shaw described his romantic-triangle comedy, Candida, as "a religious play," and director Richard Romagnoli's production at Olney Theatre Center takes that idea and runs with it.

Though the playwright left little unsaid, Romagnoli underlines almost everything. It's not enough that Shaw named the character of a minister "Rev. Morell" (pronounced "moral") and called his frank, truth-telling wife "Candida."

After intermission, Valerie Leonard's Candida appears draped in a shawl that gives more than a hint of the Virgin Mary. And when Jeffries Thaiss, as Marchbanks, the young poet who has fallen in love with Candida, proclaims to her husband, "I am the man," the poet is standing in a crucifixion pose, bathed in light.

Such excesses also extend to designer Robin Stapley's parsonage set. Morell says Marchbanks has "the cunning of a serpent," and the stained-glass-bedecked set features a stone serpent entwining one of its pillars.

Yet despite these instances of overstatement, in other respects - especially the thoughtful performances - Romagnoli's production ably illustrates Shaw's commentary on the nature of love, the institution of marriage and the roles of husband and wife.

To all outward appearances, Ross A. Dippel's smug Morell and Thaiss' moony Marchbanks are polar opposites. Where Morell looks crisp and straight-laced in his black suit and turned collar, Marchbanks is a profusion of extravagances - long, flowing hair, loose jacket and shirt, billowing tie. (Costumes are by Lonie Fullerton.)

Thaiss' body language is similarly splashy; he drapes himself over furniture, and when that won't contain him, he sprawls on the floor. Dippel also has difficulty confining himself to chairs and sofas, but in his case, it's because Morell can't speak without sermonizing, complete with the accompanying gestures and postures.

Indeed, as we discover, these two opponents have more in common than they realize. Both are windbags (as Marchbanks calls Morell); Marchbanks is a poeticizing windbag, and Morell a preaching one. And both hopelessly idealize Candida.

No wonder Leonard's patient, sensible Candida refers to them both as "boys." Neither has a clue about himself, much less about the true role Candida plays in their lives. (For all the fun Shaw made of the two men, he was also guilty of idealizing Candida, but Leonard does a good job breathing life into this noble creature.)

Of the secondary performers, Anna Belknap is a standout as Morell's easily flustered secretary, a young woman struggling to hide her infatuation for her employer behind a veneer of business-like efficiency.

Ultimately, director Romagnoli's production transcends its instances of hyperbole. Candida is about men who fool themselves, and Romagnoli has fooled himself into thinking the play needs more flourishes than Shaw gave it. It's an unfortunate slip but, given the material, almost a forgivable one.

Candida

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through June 23

Tickets: $15-$35

Call: 301-924-3400

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