Kyle Prue as Henry Higgins tries out his social engineering… (Photo by Stan Barouh, Patuxent…)
George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" is a witty play whose classic status has never been in doubt, but this comedy is mostly known today as the literary source for the Broadway musical "My Fair Lady." The Everyman Theatre staging of "Pygmalion" is a fine opportunity to return to the source.
As a satirist keenly aware of class differences in Great Britain, Shaw has an especially good ear for how such differences are expressed through speech patterns. That's why he has a field day with this play's premise: a snobby scholar, Henry Higgins (Kyle Prue), and an older colleague, Col. Pickering (Stan Weiman), conduct an experiment in which Higgins will attempt to take an uneducated flower seller, Eliza Doolittle (Jenna Sokoloski), and teach her how to speak like a lady.
This intensive experiment involves having Eliza live in Higgins' house for several months, thereby guaranteeing a theatrically disruptive environment.The professor's strict rules are destined to clash with the flower girl's slang- and contraction-filled protests. Adding to the noisy mix in Higgins' formal parlor are assorted family members and household servants capably played by Helen Hedman, Wil Love, Anne Grier, Barbara Pinolini, Lynn Steinmetz and Drew Kopas.
The Everyman production directed by Eleanor Holdridge is blessed by a well-cast acting company that looks and sounds right for their roles. These actors convincingly speak English with the regional and class distinctions that are such a crucial component of Shaw's script, although Stan Weiman's particular take on an English accent tends to come and go.
What also makes the Everyman production work so well is that it does not succumb to the conventional temptation to overly sentimentalize the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Kyle Prue brings out Higgins' insufferable intellectual arrogance. Indeed, Higgins is so self-centered that he only thinks about Eliza in tems of how she can be used to test his linguistic theories.
Although the teacher will have reason to reconsider his social experiment in the final scenes, Prue doesn't go all warm and fuzzy here.
Correspondingly, Jenna Sokoloski is so fiercely outspoken as Eliza that the character remains resolutely independent even as she learns to speak the king's English and wears gowns fit for a queen. In other words, this tough-minded Eliza always realizes that there's nothing wrong with being a flower girl from the East End of London. As she's learning the professor's lessons, she's poised to teach him a thing or two about her own worth.
Shaw's brilliantly written dialogue provides Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle with many sparring opportunities. That sharp-edged patter is nicely served by a staging in which the scene changes involve characters rapidly and playfully pushing furniture and other props around, with propulsive music doing some pushing of its own. This production is as quick on its feet as it is with its dialogue.
Further contributing to the immersion in early 20th-century London is a set design by Daniel Ettinger that provides just enough by way of drawing room furnishings to conjure up the period. The opening scene on a city street is somewhat awkward, however, because its otherwise persuasive rain and fog are set against architectural elements of the drawing room set. That inside-outside fusion seems distractingly surreal, but things are fine once the action has moved indoors.
Also quite evocative are the lovely period costumes by Kathleen Geldard. Watching these well-dressed and well-spoken characters mingle in that drawing room, you'll find yourself self-consciously regarding your own wardrobe and words.
"Pygmalion" runs through June 19 at Everyman Theatre, at 1727 N. Charles St., in Baltimore. Tickets are $10 to $42. Call 410-752-2208 or go to http://www.everymantheatre.org.