The Asolo Rep’s The Devil’s Disciple provides some abbreviated amusement.
By Kay Kipling
Sometimes, plays by George Bernard Shaw gain a reputation, deserved or not, for being longwinded. That’s certainly not the case with director-designer Tony Walton’s version of Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, now up on the Asolo Rep mainstage.
In fact, this production, which clocks in at only about 105 minutes with intermission, actually feels too short or sketchy overall. One may not miss specific lines of dialogue unless one’s very familiar with the play, but it feels as if some degree of character development is missing in any case.
The Devil’s Disciple, Shaw’s only play set in America, takes place during the American Revolution in a New Hampshire town about to be overrun by British troops (who will soon find themselves on the run). The opening scene shows us Mrs. Dudgeon (Carolyn Michel) dealing with news of the death of not only her disreputable brother-in-law (whom she secretly loved long ago), but of her husband as well. Worse news, as far as she’s concerned: Her husband made a new will before dying that leaves not her, but her wayward elder son, Dick (Dan Donohue), as the chief heir.
Dan Donohue in the Asolo Rep’s The Devil’s Disciple.
One gets the feeling that Dick cares not so much for the money as for getting some form of payback against his rigidly religious mother, for he’s chosen a very different path and cares nothing for religious and social conventions. But when British officers arrest him by mistake instead of the town’s minister, the Rev. Anthony Anderson (James Clarke), Dick finds some reason within him to leave the mistake uncorrected—perhaps for the sake of the minister’s pretty young wife, Judith (Heather Kelley), with whom he seems to have a rapport despite her initial dislike.
It may be a heroic gesture, although Dick denies it. Nevertheless, in Act II he’s about to be strung up unless someone intervenes, and quickly.
As the “devil’s disciple,” Donohue is spirited and fun to watch; he’s been notable in more somber roles earlier this Asolo season, but Dick Dudgeon gives him a chance to play, and he’s irresistible. The awkward scene between him and Judith, when she first gets an inkling of attraction to him, is nicely done, and Act II offers some typically witty Shaw lines (many of them in the mouth of Douglas Jones as the cynical British General Burgoyne). There’s also some nice comedic work by Kevin O’Callaghan as Dick’s younger, semi-idiot brother.
Most of the other characters feel unrealized, however, and the first 15 minutes of the play are too slow and unfocused, with Michel, on opening night at least, struggling a bit with her lines. The Colonial-looking set by Walton, the lovely lighting by James D. Sale, and the period costumes (also by Walton with a hand from Rebecca Lustig) give audiences a reason to keep their eyes on the stage, though.
The Devil’s Disciple continues in rotating rep through May 24; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.