The fact that George Bernard Shaw's Candida was written in 1894 and set in London should not suggest any lack of relevance to 21st-century audiences. Shaw's sparkling wit is couched in graceful language to espouse equality of classes and sexes. Shaw is quoted as saying, "My way of joking is to tell the truth; it's the funniest joke in the world."
Candida - staged by Bay Theatre through May 30 - is the story of the wife of the Rev. James Morell of East London.
From the moment audience members enter Bay Theatre's intimate space, they are ensconced in a Victorian drawing room, complete with a working fireplace. Designer and carpenter Ken Sheats' set features walls with wainscoting and paneling extending into the stage hall. A window topped by a leaded-glass floral representation is bordered by a brocade valance, with matching draperies on each side and lace curtains.
The artistic sets are a prelude to the theater art on stage - this time, director Lucinda Merry-Browne has chosen to end the 2008-2009 season with a classic play where she does a first-rate job selecting the cast and swiftly moving the action without rushing it. Merry-Browne's artistry is enhanced by Sheats' set and designer Jill Kyle-Keith's costumes.
As the play begins, Candida has just returned from the beach, where she has been caring for her children and spending time with poet and family friend Eugene Marchbanks. Among the visitors upon Candida's return are her opportunistic businessman father, Burgess; the pastor's spinster secretary, Proserpine; and the young clergyman Levy.
Marchbanks proclaims his love for Candida, expecting this will force her to choose between the two men.
Vanessa Morosco is an ideal choice to play Candida, projecting her character's confident assurance, independence and wisdom. Equally strong is Carl Randolph as Morell, emanating authority springing from his conviction in his unfailing socialist correctness and unwavering strength, which he barely realizes is buttressed by Candida's constant support.
Aware of everything around her, Candida assures her husband of his attractiveness to other women and tells him Marchbanks fancies he is in love with her while perhaps not yet realizing it. Morosco's Candida exudes confidence born of wisdom, and she has a natural grace that makes her a compelling presence. Forced to choose between husband and poet, Candida bases her decision on whose need of her is greater.
Dan Stowell as Marchbanks is convincing as the love-struck 18-year-old poet, completely aware of his love for Candida, consumed by it, worshiping Candida and wanting to take her away from her domestic chores. He is so overcome by this emotion that he confronts Morell without pausing to consider the reverend's or his wife's reactions, assuming Candida will choose freedom over domesticity.
Morell declares: "I have nothing to offer you but my strength for your defense, my honesty of purpose for your surety, my ability and industry for your livelihood, and my authority and position for your dignity. That is all it becomes a man to offer to a woman."
Marchbanks offers Candida "My weakness, my desolation, my heart's need." And Candida announces, "I give myself to the weaker of the two."
The supporting players provide some high comic relief, with Joe Cronin stealing his every scene as Candida's industrialist father Burgess - funny, practical and crassly wise as he inhabits this conniving character. Repressed pastor's secretary Proserpine is perfectly played by CeCe McGee, conveying a working woman skilled in her job, and forgetting herself in calling Burgess "a silly old fathead" while harboring romantic fantasies that nearly find expression after two glasses of champagne.
Jared Mercier plays young pastor Lexy with an easy comic style that add his own humorous moments.
Candida caps another successful season for Bay Theatre - one that ran the gamut from the hard-edged drama of Sam Shepard's True West to the cozy tunefulness of The Fantasticks and the lonely vulnerability of the aging couple inhabiting D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game, and ending with the timeless classicism of Shaw. Each production has been faithful to the playwright's vision, artfully proving how creativity can flourish in the smallest of theater spaces.
If you go
Candida plays Thursdays through Sundays, through May 30. Call Bay Theatre at 410-268-1333 for reservations.