George Bernard Shaw published Candida in 1898. Though it was not performed in London until it was a hit in New York in 1903, where it inspired what Shaw called “Candidamania,” the play’s American debut marked Candida as a play fit for worldwide audiences and proclaimed Shaw far more than an aspiring playwright.
The production of Candida currently appearing at the Washington Stage Guild (WSG) proves why the play inspired Candidamania and why Shaw has remained one of the world’s most beloved playwrights.
Candida is one of Shaw’s “Play’s Pleasant,” which means that it is more concerned with relationships than with political or social ideas. It is subtitled “A Mystery.”
The primary human emotion it studies is love, specifically the love between a husband, Reverend James Morrell, and his wife, Candida Morrell. The Morrell’s marriage is tested when it is confronted by a poet, Eugene Marchbanks, who declares that he also loves Candida.
Although this triangle is at the center of the play’s plot, Candida is no simple story that is being told to see which male gets the female. Instead, Shaw included several characters in order to complicate the narrative and deepen the mystery.
Shaw couldn’t abide extraneous characters. Even the people who had the fewest lines to speak in his plays existed for a reason. In Candida, he included: Morrell’s father-in-law, Burgess; a young curate named Rev. Alexander Mill; and Morrell’s secretary, Proserpine Garnett.
These three characters exist to allow the relationships among Candida, Morrell, and Marchbanks to assume different elements. As the play progresses, the audience sees not just the people caught in an impossible triangle, but the mini-society surrounding them, commenting on their behavior.
Candida takes place in St. Dominic’s parsonage in the suburbs of London during the morning, afternoon, and evening of an October day.
In the WSG production, Candida is every bit the star the playwright intended her to be. According to Shaw, she is “33, well built…with the double charm of youth and motherhood.” As is noted continually, everyone loves Candida, because she always says the right thing, does the right thing, always puts people at ease.
As Candida, Emelie Faith Thompson takes over the family’s drawing room the moment she first enters it. Gradually, Thompson makes it clear that, although she expresses warm feelings about the characters around her, Candida clearly relies on her own wit and intelligence to survive.
Nathan Whitmer, who plays Rev. James Morrell, is credible as the popular, self-confident, Christian Socialist clergyman who believes there is nothing wrong with his life until he takes Marchbanks under his wing.
Ben Ribler is a delight in the role of Marchbanks, the 18-year-old son of an earl and therefore – importantly – not after Candida’s fortune. Marchbanks is a complex figure, afraid of strangers and of paying cab drivers, yet able to staunchly confront Morrell about how badly he treats Candida. Ribler shows both sides of Marchbanks handily.
As Burgess, David Bryan Jackson is one of the strongest members of the cast. Greedy and self-centered, Jackson’s Burgess is suspicious of Morrell, but he is also capable of showing love to his daughter.
Danny Beason plays the curate, Rev. Mill, as a lovable, self-aware young man, straight out of Oxford, helping Morrell with his chores. Danielle Scott does an excellent job as Miss Garnett, who is flattered to sit at the left hand of Morrell and type his letters all day.
Laura Giannarelli directs the show at a rapid pace and with an emphasis on its plentiful humor. Presumably, she is responsible for the details that make this production so authentically Shavian, like Rev. Mills’s curly hair and Burgess’s Cockney accent, which sets him apart from all the other characters who speak with a posh, London accent.
Scenic designers Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai create a drawing-room closely allied to the one described by Shaw in the Preface to Candida: a large desk for Morrell, a smaller typing desk for Miss Garnett, a fireplace against the back wall and over it a print of Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin.”
Cheryl Yancey accurately describes the role of the clerics in their black outfits and white collars. She gives Marchbanks a wild and disorganized look to match his personality. Yancey also vividly outlines the economic status of the play’s women: Candida is dressed in an elegant pink gown and black fur cape while traveling, and a less fancy dress when at home; Miss Garnett wears long skirts and high-necked blouses.
Lighting designer Marianne Meadows divides Shaw’s scenes with crisp blackouts.
Washington Stage Guild has been doing the works of Shaw since 1986, when the company took shape. In that time, they have had an opportunity to produce half of Shaw’s 60-odd plays, including all of the Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant. If you enjoy Shaw done as it should be done, unfiltered, you should really make an effort to get to this Candida.
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Washington Stage Guild’s Candida plays through October 20 at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Ave, N.W., in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202) 900-8788 or go online.
Sound designer: Frank DiSalvo