Candida - the preacher and the panting puppy

"Candida" by George Bernard Shaw has been delighting and infuriating audiences since its first production in 1898. Taproot Theatre's current staging provides a pleasant evening but not one liable to stimulate deep thought. This is a production that has all the humor of Shaw but not enough of the intellectual challenge.

A good sense of Victorian England is established even before the play begins. Strains of Gilbert and Sullivan echo through the theater. Its open stage reveals the leather and polished woodwork of the study in a middle-class London home. As the play begins, the clerically garbed Rev. James Morell sits at his desk sifting through his overbooked calendar as he tries to fit in one more speech. A popular public speaker, the Rev. Morell is a champion of socialism.

When his wife Candida appears, we understand that he practices his social egalitarianism as well as preaching it. This beauty is her husband's partner, not his obedient subordinate. She's an empowered woman. It looks like an ideal marriage, something we tend to believe is more common in the 21st century than it was in the 19th.

Ah, but paradise is not to be found on this earth. The serpent in this play is Eugene Marchbanks, a young poet to whom the kind Reverend has offered his hospitality. What he never expected was that Marchbanks would fall madly in love with Candida, creating a love triangle whose resolution is the heart of the play.

In many ways, Morell is Shaw's alter ego. The playwright was an ardent socialist whose plays explore the ideas he held dear. He abhorred exploitation ... of working-class people, of women, of anyone. And he was one of the most sought-after speakers in England.

Shaw saw himself as a supporter of women's rights; think of "Pygmalion," Joan of Arc. "Candida" was his earliest play in that tradition.

It was also the earliest of his works in which he was successful in combining his ideas with humor and charm. The play has rich humor, abounding in witty lines and delightful ironies, yet it has plenty to say about class differences, exploitation, the relationship between men and women and about ideals as opposed to reality.

Unfortunately, in the Taproot production many of the ideas get lost in the next laugh.

Terry Edward Moore, who plays Morell, is a handsome stage presence. He imbues his character with wisdom, culture and moral fortitude - a strong man, but one who can fall to pieces when faced with the loss of his beloved. Lisa Peretti is a winning heroine. As Candida, she's lovely to look at, obviously competent and filled with mirth. Kevin Brady as the immature poet Marchbanks is arrogant yet fearful; he gushes passion but also has the occasional flash of brilliance. He's ardent, yet he's a buffoon.

Candida must choose between the two men who love her, but it's no choice. For Taproot's Candida, it isn't a real contest between the respectability and stability of Morell and the passion of Marchbanks. In this production, the poet is never more than a panting puppy, slobbering over whatever tidbit his beloved throws his way. He's no match for the husband, who may not be the most exciting man but is certainly a man rather than a puppy.

Contemporary feminists have raged at Shaw for creating a proto-feminist character who chooses the man she thinks needs her more, who gives up passion to mother her husband. They'd have a hard time defending that position on the basis of this production. Marchbanks offers Candida little more than an ego trip. She, who is, above all, practical, would be a fool to exchange her highly satisfying life for that.

Rounding out the cast are Rachel Hornor performing admirably as Morell's lovesick secretary. Nolan Palmer as Mr. Burgess, Candida's father, represents the exploitative and vulgar businessman. He's excellent in his role but should not have been directed to speak in a cockney accent; he was quite capable of depicting the character's coarseness without that improbable language pattern. Lathrop Walker plays Rev. Mill.

As Shaw has written this play, his major characters end with a better idea about who they are, as well as an understanding of what love and commitment really mean. I'm not sure that this production helps the audience understand that. But if you'd like some good laughs, this "Candida" will provide them.

Freelance writer Nancy Worssam is a Magnolia resident. She can be reached through

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