It’s no insult to say that the Cocteau is the quintessential community theater, exemplifying all the virtues and vices that come with that artistic territory. In the plus column: a handsome landmark theater in a vibrant part of town, an alert and involved subscription aud drawn from the neighborhood, a commitment to classic plays that gives the 35-year-old company a clear sense of purpose and a resident company trained in the protean art of repertory. On the down side: an amateurish style that renders those virtues irrelevant.
The company devised an intriguing concept for its 35th-anniversary season — five classic plays featuring five memorable women — and launched it with a bold production of Brecht’s “Mother Courage.” George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida” lands in the middle of the cycle, following “Medea” and anticipating “Miss Julie” and “Anna Christie.” So there’s time for the company to redeem itself for this stodgy, pedestrian production, which is all surface and no spleen.
Like the Roundabout, its obvious role model, the Cocteau stands or falls on the inventiveness of its directors. Michael Halberstam, a Chicago helmer (artistic director of the Writer’s Theater) making his local debut here, seems to have given little thought to Shaw’s quirky views on marriage and domestic harmony — aside from keeping the play solidly grounded in its Victorian period. This he does with dull competence.
Aside from the jarring dissonance of Josh Schmidt’s incidental music and the oddly gaudy pictorial centerpiece of Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” over the mantel, the mise-en-scene aptly conveys the smugly tasteful comforts of a minister’s home. Sean Sullivan’s smartly tailored costumes (the suits are exceptional) establish the middle-class prosperity of their wearers, while Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set design achieves perspective depth through shrewd use of stepped levels and multiple arches.
But none of this visual depth and detail shows up in the performance style, which is stiffly mannered and far too vulgar to suit the refined sensibilities of the characters.
Although the parson’s wise and tender wife, Candida, is the beating heart of the play, the Rev. James Morell (her “great baby” of a husband, as Shaw calls him) is a fascinating piece of work. A charismatic Christian Socialist clergyman committed to the philosophy of faith and good works, Morell is childishly trusting of mankind in general and of his wife in particular — to the point of encouraging her to choose between him and young Marchbanks, the lovesick poet who keeps begging her to run away with him. Forced to face reality in their love duel, Morell is dramatically transformed. It’s a great, multifaceted role for an actor, but utterly lost on David Tillistrand, who blusters through without a clue.
Not that Danaher Dempsey puts up much of a fight as young Marchbanks. Idealistic and immature, the poet comes of age in his battle for Candida’s love, learning something about himself and his artistic calling that sends him into the world on a note of triumph. Again, the subtleties of the role are lost on the thesp, who plays the poet as a silly twit.
Amanda Jones, a company stalwart, eventually rises to play Candida with some dignity and even a bit of the celebrated Shavian wit that has made the character immortal. But for much of the play, thesp is so sticky-sweet that it’s a mystery what her admirers find so endearing.
While the three principals do, indeed, pull themselves together for the great debate over what a woman truly wants in a man, the slack direction discourages meaningful interaction. Lacking that sense of a tight ensemble at work, even reliable actors like Angus Hepburn (as Candida’s low-class dad) and Kate Holland (as Morell’s devoted secretary) are reduced to putting on a show of stagy character airs.
Given the elocutionary style of the acting, the audience has little chance to appreciate the nuances of Shaw’s thoughts on the nature of marital relationships or to consider what insights they may hold for our own lives. Which should be, one assumes, the whole point of reviving the play in the first place.