From the program:
"A fine morning in October 1894," begins Shaw's stage direction, "in the north east quarter of London, a vast district miles away from the London of Mayfair and St James's". In this unfashionable middle-class suburb, with its "miles and miles of unlovely brick houses," is St Dominic's Parsonage, the home of the Reverend James Mavor Morell and his family. Reverend Morell is a vigorous, genial, attractive man of about forty; and since he is also a fine speaker and holds advanced political views, he is much in demand for public lectures.
As the play begins, we find Morell's wife Candida returning home from three weeks in the country. She is accompanied by Eugene Marchbanks, an 18-year-old poet and the nephew of an earl, whom Morell discovered some months ago sleeping among the homeless on the Thames Embankment. When the two men are left alone, a nervous Marchbanks informs Morell that he is in love with Candida, and starts to undermine Morell's confidence that Candida is still happy in her marriage. And though Candida shows that she is fond of them both, she speaks warmly of Eugene and seems oblivious to her husband's growing concern. Some kind of confrontation is clearly brewing.
When Bernarda returns home for the wake, she snarls at the servants and leads everyone in prayer. But she is so inhospitable that the guests leave almost immediately; and when they have gone, she announces to her daughters that the house will be shut tight for eight years of mourning. This decree does not sit well with the daughters, the eldest of whom is being courted (for her money) by a handsome young villager, and the youngest of whom rebels against anything that will keep her from experiencing life outside the walls of the house.
The Globe and Mail's review:
The housewife and the poet: Risk-free fun
By KATE TAYLOR
Monday, July 8, 2002 – Print Edition, Page R3
You couldn't ask for a smoother executive transition than the one under way at the Shaw Festival, where outgoing artistic director Christopher Newton got a standing ovation and a Molson Prize for his achievements on Friday before ceding the stage to a production of Candidavery tidily directed by his successor, Jackie Maxwell.
Candida, in which the title character (played by Kelli Fox) must chose between her clergyman husband (Blair Williams) and a young poet (Mike Shara), is one of Bernard Shaw's more conventional plays -- no massive speeches, no improbable characters or fantastical settings, and an uncomplicated ending. And Maxwell has mounted a conventional production of it, milking the comedy and sidestepping any darker doubts about its heroine.
On a set where designer Sue LePage has recreated a North London parlour down to the paisley shawl on the sofa and the William Morris paper on the walls, Maxwell establishes a world where a lovesick poet may disrupt domestic security but he certainly is never going to overthrow it. The results of his romantic assault on the lady of the house are amusing but free of the tension that might make the play interesting.
The problem at the core of Candidais the woman herself (whose name reflects her candour, not a yeast infection, and is pronounced accordingly). It is not hard to understand why her well-meaning but self-satisfied husband, the busy social reformer and religious rhetorician Rev. James Morell, loves her talent for cheerful organization. It's a bit more difficult to believe that he is still planting wet kisses on her lips after some years of marriage, as Williams does here.
And it is impossible to see what it is in this chipper hausfrau that Eugene Marchbanks, the aristocratic young poet whom she and her husband have charitably rescued from the gutter, idolizes. He is simply a knight errant, who need not really know the distant lady for whom he is willing to die. In truth, Candida is largely unknowable: She makes little response to either man and little explanation of herself. You could call her enigmatic, or just underwritten.
Shaw described her as maternal rather than sexual and, certainly, Fox is an actress without an enigmatic bone in her body. Her talent is her physical and emotional solidity, and she and Maxwell have decided that Candida is above all else sensible. Here, she gently reveals the power balance of her marriage, that she controls the household and does its dirty work while pretending her husband is the master, without any hint of bitterness.
And she reminds the 18-year-old Eugene that when he is 60 she will be 75, without any trace of sadness over the intimations of mortality. It is a reasonable reading of the script, but one that takes no risks, simply setting aside the troubling question of whether Shaw is exposing Candida's marital compromises or celebrating them. In this amusing but suspense-free domestic drama, there can be no doubt as to what good housewives do with inconvenient poets.
Curling into a fetal ball at the slightest provocation and crawling about the room on all fours, Shara plays that role like a cross between a toddler and a shaggy dog, and it is his physical performance as Marchbanks that is the chief source of comedy. Williams is also increasingly amusing as he plumps up Morrell's complacency and then deflates it at Marchbanks's pinprick. Fox is their straight woman for an evening of fun in which nobody is rocking the boat.
Candida runs at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., until Nov. 23. Call 1-800-511-7429.
Kate Taylor's reviews from the Shaw and Stratford festivals are available on-line at globeandmail.com