The attempted canonization of British playwright Githa Sowerby continues apace at the Shaw Festival.
Over her tenure as artistic director, Jackie Maxwell has been seriously dedicated to this obscure early 20th century female writer as part of an archeological stream of programming that aims to dig up lesser-known contemporaries of Bernard Shaw.
Having seen Sowerby's best-known play, Rutherford and Son, and then the belated world premiere of The Stepmother, Shaw audiences now get the North American premiere of her difficult-to-categorize 1914 play, A Man and Some Women.
Of the three, this is probably the weakest, but it is nevertheless a fascinating yarn with a few gripping outbursts of family conflict that led to gasps in the audience on opening night.
Dick Shannon (Graeme Somerville) is the titular male, a tropical-disease expert forced to work outside his field due to the financial demands of three women he supports – a mean-spirited materialist wife, Hilda (Jenny L. Wright), and a pair of squabbling spinster sisters, Elizabeth (Sharry Flett) and Rose (Kate Hennig).
Henpecked Dick's only consolations are his forward-thinking cousin Jessica (Marla McLean) and 10-year-old Jack, a young relative he has quasi-adopted after a family scandal.
Push finally comes to shove for Dick after his mother's death, when Hilda insists he send Jack to an orphanage, and Rose, who is constantly peeking around corners, accuses him of having an affair with Jessica.
Where A Man and Some Women goes from here is somewhat surprising, so I'm reluctant to say any more. One of the joys of discovering a little-known playwright unencumbered by critical consensus on her work is that you simply don't know what to expect. At different moments, I thought I was watching a Chekhovian comedy, an Ibsenian tragedy or a romantic melodrama.
What makes Sowerby hard to credit as a major modern dramatist is that her characters aren't always all that psychologically complex. It's very easy to distinguish the goodies from baddies here, even if Alisa Palmer's enjoyably claustrophobic production does attempt to give each of the women a fair shake at some point.
As Rose, a self-righteous prude dedicated in equal parts to mission work and mischief, Hennig does manage to create a rather complicated picture of a character that teeters on caricature. She's prone to bursts of tears in between her bouts of meddling, such that you get the feeling that there's something deeply repressed within her.
Wright, as the horrendous Hilda, rather more relishes her villainy; there's something of Hannibal Lecter in the calm, lip-licking delivery of her lines. One can imagine a more sympathetic portrayal of this character, but hardly a more entertaining one. (I booed her at the curtain call, as I had the evil husband Gaydon in The Stepmother.)
As Dick, Somerville paints a rather more nuanced portrait of a man mad as heck and not going to take it anymore. McLean is a little more difficult to pin down as the saintly Jessica, particularly in the second act when she begins to take on the irritating martyr-like airs of Mr. Bates on Downton Abbey. Stop being so annoyingly honourable and kiss him, you fool!
Sowerby, the program notes remind us, was a Fabian and a socialist, but I don't imagine Ayn Rand would find A Man and Some Women objectionable. Jessica urges Dick to ignore familial ties and follow his bliss, while the play in general seems intent on illustrating how not working for a living and being reliant on others can turn women into useless gossiping nags.
In recent years, the Shaw Festival has featured a number of contemporary Canadian plays that cast their eye on women living in Victorian-Edwardian England. For me, Maxwell's rediscovery of Sowerby is largely fascinating in that we get to hear a woman from the period speak for herself.
A Man and Some Women
- Written by Githa Sowerby
- Directed by Alisa Palmer
- Starring Graeme Somerville and Marla McLean
- At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
- 3 stars