by Jerome Kilty
Directed by Susan Sargeant
Stage Manager – Zoelyn Copeland
Scenic Design – Nick Brethauer
Lighting Design – Susan A. White
Costume Design – Barbara C. Cox
Sound Design – Lowell Sargeant
Mrs. Patrick Campbell – Lisa Fairchild
George Bernard Shaw – Allan Pollard
Reviewed Performance: 10/9/2015
Reviewed by Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Few theatregoers are unaware of George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright who penned Pygmalion, which was later made into both a film and a Broadway musical (My Fair Lady) and was only one of more than 50 plays written by Shaw during his lifetime. We may even know that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and an Academy Award in 1938, but that he refused many other honors, including the offer of a knighthood. And we may realize that he was also an accomplished and influential music and theater critic. As with most literary luminaries, we know a great deal about Shaw's professional legacy.
Unlike many other literary greats, however, we also have the opportunity to know much about the private man through the copious amounts of correspondence he left in his wake. Friends with a wide array of notable figures, including Gene Tunney, H.G. Wells, Edith Nesbit, Michael Collins, and G.K. Chesterton, Shaw favored letter-writing (as one can surmise after viewing the four-volume collection of his letters that is currently in print) to his contemporaries. Shaw's letters reveal a passion and biting wit that is prime material for the stage, which Jerome Kilty recognized when he turned a collection of letters between Shaw and his muse, the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, into Dear Liar and took it to Broadway in 1960.
Dear Liar chronicles the allegedly unconsummated romance between Shaw and Campbell through their legendary exchange of letters and through readings of the roles Shaw wrote for the actress. Since, during their 40-year relationship, the pair often wrote to one another multiple times per day (mail was generally delivered more than once per day, too), readers of their letters can gain an excellent understanding of both figures, and Jerome Kilby has a great deal of material with which to work.
Still, I wondered before the start of the play whether the material would be engaging. How exactly does one create on-stage action from a collection of letters? Would the play consist of two actors reading to one another all night long? How could anyone but the most devoted of Shaw (or Campbell) enthusiasts remain awake by the end? The answers to these questions are: delicately, yes... and no, and quite easily.
Kilty does a fine job of connecting the letters and the plays, of weaving the different pieces together so smoothly that no frayed edges remain. And under the direction of Susan Sargeant, actors Lisa Fairchild and Allan Pollard are a formidable duo, breathing life and energy into the characters.
Lisa Fairchild is delightful as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the elegant leading lady who she portrays with spunk and a bit of coquettish glee. She expertly conveys the splintered feminine identity at the turn of the 19th century—part lover, part businesswoman, part artist, part wife, and part mother. Kilby's script gently considers the concerns of the fin de siècle woman, and Fairchild stays in step, fluidly shifting from flirtatious to encourage Shaw's interest to scolding when he oversteps the bounds of propriety to besotted by Shaw's passion to circumspect when considering her marriage options to anxious when discussing her son who is fighting in World War I. Mrs. Patrick Campbell's boundless energy is paramount to keeping an audience engaged with Dear Liar, and Fairchild does not disappoint. She seems to be constantly in motion and is evidently comfortable with her stage, whether she is standing, sitting, stooping, or lying on it. Of particular note are Fairchild's humorous enactments of Campbell playing the role of Eliza Doolittle opposite Shaw's Higgins, and her obvious exasperation with Shaw's acerbic commentary on the performance. The heart-wrenching melancholy with which Fairchild expresses Campbell's anguish over her son is also arresting.
Allan Pollard plays George Bernard Shaw in all his contradiction. Pollard's Shaw is volatile yet tender, talented, inventive, and impossible. Pollard emphasizes Shaw's confidence and tendency toward egocentricity, but his Shaw is not insensitive. Rather, he's so entranced with his wordplay with Campbell and passionate about thought, art, and politics that he sometimes takes things a bit too far. Pollard is an expert at rapidly switching from exuberant sparring to unexpected feeling, as he must when letters from Campbell that contain sad tidings have crossed paths with ones in which Shaw continued a more diverting exchange. It is these swift changes in mood that reveal the sensitivity that lurks beneath Shaw's impetuousness and bluster. Pollard handles Shaw's mental agility and spry tongue admirably as well, rattling off the writer's brisk rants as naturally as if they were his own, and exhibiting an impish smirk when playfully enticing Campbell into being his leading lady in Pygmalion.
Both actors are dressed in period costumes, which change as they age across their 40-year correspondence. Mrs. Patrick Campbell begins in an off-the-shoulder taffeta gown with a comb-adorned updo, and dangling earrings that unfortunately sometimes become ensnared in her hair. As Campbell grows slightly older, her gowns turn from creamy taffeta to rose satin, she trades in her off-the-shoulder styling for a stole, and her updo becomes a demure Gibson tuck. Late in the play, her dresses become darker and more modern, and her hair becomes shorter. Shaw's costume is less changing. He begins in a three-piece brown suit, and later replaces the suit jacket with a less formal smoking jacket. Pollard is also given Shaw's signature hairstyle and thick beard, which greatly add to his charm, but the heavily waxed tips of his mustache are distractingly artificial.
Scenic Designer Nick Brethauer provides a winning backdrop consisting of a screen bordered by pages of Shaw and Campbell's letters. The patterned border is extended to the architectural features of the theater itself, as columns are similarly decorated with pages of letters and biographical information. Furniture creates a visual division on stage, with Mrs. Patrick Campbell occupying stage left and Shaw occupying stage right. Campbell's area contains a divan, a footstool, and a delicate, kidney-shaped writing desk covered with baubles—a teacup, a lamp, a bubbled glass paperweight. Shaw's side is dominated by a substantial, ornate writing desk, which is bestrewn with papers, books, and a framed photo of his wife. A leather ottoman is also provided downstage to give Pollard a secondary acting space, just as Fairchild is given by her divan and footstool. Another inspired choice is the final piece of furniture that is ever-present on stage—an accent table containing an open hat box, which presumably is the hat box that was found under Mrs. Patrick Campell's bed when she died and contained all of her correspondence with Shaw. At the beginning of the play, this table is centrally located down stage, but it moves up stage as the play progresses.
A colorful mix of lighting works in tandem with the set and the emotion of the play. During happy, hopeful moments, the mix is tinged with gold or rose as a glow sweeps across the stage. In contrast, during more solemn moments or at times of conflict, the glow is replaced by a luminous blue cast. Regardless, the colors on stage are always dream-like and reminiscent of either dawn or a sunset. Sound is unobtrusive and, given the small space in the theater and the masterful vocal projection of the actors, microphones are not required.
While a familiarity with Victorian modes of speech helps when watching Dear Liar, the vivid and affectionate relationship between Shaw and Campbell can and should be savored by everyone. I left the theater delighted by wordplay and the intimate glimpse of repartee between two great wits, feeling more sympathetic toward a writer I had previously thought of as overly brash, and determined to seek out more letters by both George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell.
WingSpan Theatre Company at The Bath House Cultural Center
521 E. Lawther Drive, Dallas, TX 75218
Runs through October 24th.
Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 pm, with matinees on Saturday at 2:00 pm. There are post-show Talk Backs with the director and actors on Fridays. Ticket prices for Saturday evening shows are $25.00, and all other shows are $20.00. There is a $2 discount for students, seniors (age 65 and better), groups, and KERA and Stage members. For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.wingspantheatre.com or call the box office at 214-675-6573.