Area fans of George Bernard Shaw usually get more of the same of the playwright’s work here: Major Barbara, Arms and the Man, the Lerner-Loewe musical version of Pygmalion, etc. But I can’t recall a production over the past couple of decades of his Candida—one of his “Pleasant Plays,” as he chose to term it, along with Arms.
That made it appealing to watch the version now onstage at the Cook Theatre in an FSU/Asolo Conservatory production. While Candida is a comedy, certainly, director Andrei Malaev-Babel and his cast could have injected a little more heart along with the humor into this tale of a minister’s wife, Candida (Amanda Lynn Mullen, who’s effective despite being younger than the character), who’s devoted to her sometimes pompous, Christian Socialist speechmaking husband, James (Brian Nemiroff, in a change-of-pace role for him), at the same time she’s inspiring idolatrous adoration in the eyes of a younger poet, Eugene (Benjamin Williamson).
Candida (a role played for years by theater legend Katherine Cornell) is a woman of 1894, the year the play is set, in that she doesn’t have radical ideas about her place in society. But in her own quiet, understated way, she rules the roost, while allowing her husband to think he’s the master. (Sound familiar?) You can see in the way she treats both men that she really thinks of them as boys—bigger versions of her own two unseen children.
For the highly sensitive Eugene (played by Williamson in a trembling, nervous manner that draws laughs—he even hides behind the curtains of Chris McVicker’s set when afraid), it’s torture to think of his beloved performing housewifely chores like filling lamps or slicing onions. Candida is amused by him, but when a showdown is forced between these two men who love her, which will she choose? Or will she take a third path and leave them both behind?
Shaw’s first act sets this up for speedy resolution in the second, while also introducing the characters of James’ mild-mannered curate (Jefferson McDonald), his gimlet-eyed secretary, Proserpine (Kristen Lynne Blossom, who is fierce enough to scare men braver than Eugene) and Candida’s capitalist father (Reginald K. Robinson Jr., who sometimes struggles with his more working-class accent). It’s interesting to see how the father’s arguments against paying his workers a living wage continues to be relevant today, along with how James’ gift of oratory packs more punch for his audiences than the ideas behind the words (certainly we still see evidence of that today as well).
Candida provides a good exercise for the Conservatory’s M.F.A. students, and it’s mostly entertaining for viewers as well. It made me want to go back and reread the original for Shaw’s famous stage directions alone; you have to be intrigued by a play that ends with the direction, “But they do not know the secret in the poet’s heart”). It must be a challenge to get that across.’
Candida continues through April 28; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.