Director Peter Hinton’s stylish production of “The Way of the World” transports William Congreve’s complicated Restoration comedy of manners from 1700 to the 1950s, and, in doing so, brings clarity to a notoriously convoluted script. Hinton’s meticulous attention to detail, combined with Caroline Smith’s fine set and clever costuming, and the sheer joy emanating from the cast, make the play both highly enjoyable and generally accessible. The co-prod between the National Arts Center and Soulpepper Theater Company moves to Toronto in July.
In “The Way of the World” — his last play — Congreve pokes fun at the foibles and hypocrisy of a society preoccupied with wealth, fashion and appearance. Badly received when it was first presented, the play depicted a world focused on artifice, power, greed and malice, spiced with sexuality.
The tone transfers easily to the 1950s, as Hinton demonstrates brilliantly in this cohesive, fast-moving production. The shift from an 18th century chocolate house to a Playboy club or the replacement of powdered wigs with a massive beehive hairdo and a startling strawberry blonde wig is smooth as the silk of the extreme ’50s fashions on stage.
Central point of the coiled plot revolves around the matriarch, Lady Wishfort (Tanja Jacobs), having too much control over her family’s future and funds. The younger generation aims, by fair means or foul, to gain control over their marital and economic destinies.
True love eventually triumphs, after wading through a forest of complexity and attempts to cheat Lady Wishfort’s niece, Millamant (Caroline Cave), and daughter, Mrs. Fainall (Diana Donnelly), of their fortunes. Along the way, the lovers, Millamant and Mirabell (Mike Shara), flex their wits and strike a blow for equality of the sexes.
Congreve appears unconcerned about attacking the major character flaws in the villains of the piece, Lady Wishfort’s false friend, Mrs. Marwood (Nancy Palk), and her daughter’s cheating husband, Mr. Fainall (C. David Johnson). Instead, he concentrates on adjusting various affectations.
Perhaps this is why Hinton’s decision to relocate the play to another era of affectation and extremes is so effective. The director is extremely well served by his cast, led by Jacobs, an actress who says as much with the blink of an eye or slight dip of her head as by parading in an ugly corset or an impossibly restricting gown and pink hair.
Shara, as the earnest Mirabell, appears totally at ease with the script’s verbal gymnastics. He is the force of truth, while Jacobs is the equal force at the other end of the comic spectrum of this fine ensemble.
The result is an outstanding production, not to be missed.