Perhaps because of its one set and relatively small cast, the early Candida (1894) is one of Bernard Shaw’s most frequently revived plays. I’ve reviewed three New York productions of it, and can recall at least three others. For Shaw, it’s also a fairly untypical work, though its success paved the way for the wider acceptance of his more extravagant or more complex pieces.
In the days before movies and television supplanted theater in the public mind, star actors tended to make Candida’s production something of a habit. Hearty leading men loved playing Reverend James Mavor Morell, the charismatic but doggedly honorable Socialist preacher, adored by everyone around him, including the impecunious young aristocrat-poet, Marchbanks, a favorite role for “juvenile” romantic leading men. Marchbanks, cut off by his haughty family for his rebellious ways, has been rescued from homelessness by Morell, who keeps him about as a sort of mascot, useful, during the minister’s frequent absences for public speaking engagements, for amusing his lovingly supportive, infallibly glamorous wife, the title role.
Morell and Marchbanks may be irresistible actor-bait, but Candida, to the right actress, is the role of roles. She has both men hypnotized; she gets to be both sposally submissive and dominatingly seductive. Though raised rich—her father, a coarse-grained factory owner, has often been viewed as a preliminary sketch for Pygmalion’s Alfred P. Doolittle—she loves doing the household chores. Sweet-natured and maternally sympathetic, she views mankind with an amusement that sometimes reveals itself, comically, through an unexpectedly sharp Shavian tongue.
In short, Candida is all things to all men, a Cleopatra of the parsonage fireside, and the desire to watch an actress show off the role’s multiple facets has kept the play alive long past any public fascination with parsonages, firesides, or the “shocking” triangle that results from a pampered young poet’s falling in love with a married older woman—married to a minister, no less. Morell and Marchbanks can become habits for an actor; Candida, in the hands of a star who can appear both glamorous and homey, like Katharine Cornell, can almost become a crusade. (Cornell and her director-husband, Guthrie McClintic, had an eye for young talent: The unknown novice actors hired to play Marchbanks in her innumerable revivals of the work included Orson Welles and Marlon Brando.)
But today, Candida’s jittery mix of edgy humor, “advanced” ideas, and thick, late-Victorian rhetoric poses both a challenge and a temptation: The poetic effusions into which Marchbanks leaps as he initiates open warfare on Morell for possession of the latter’s wife fall wincingly on modern ears more attuned to Mamet. A Minister’s Wife (Newhouse Theater), Lincoln Center’s new musical version of the play, solves the dilemma, to a large extent, by muting the humor that makes Shaw Shaw.
Burgess, Candida’s comically crass father, is entirely omitted from Austin Pendleton’s tautly condensed book, and the laughing relief that he provides from the love triangle has disappeared with him. So has his other important function, as capitalism’s spokesman in this Socialist play, a thorn in the side of Morell, who views Burgess as a slave master and has shamed him into paying his workers a living wage.
What feels freshest in A Minister’s Wife is precisely Morell’s Christian Socialism, especially as espoused, energetically, at the show’s opening, in a musicalized sermon. Marc Kudisch (Morell) is one of the best actors in our musical theater—Bobby Steggert, the show’s slyly cocky and vulnerable Marchbanks, also belongs on that list—and his combination of power and zest, touched with a delicate hint of insecure self-consciousness, carries the evening.
This makes for trouble, since, just as Christian Socialism’s morality is the weaker force in a money-centered society, Morell, who needs constant support, is the man more likely to bring out Candida’s wife-mother instincts. With the disquieting comedy pared away, her choice is all too predictable. Composer Joshua Schmidt’s somber, minimalist vocabulary, using the phrases that Jan Levy Tranen’s lyrics snatch from Shaw as repetitive building blocks, gives the show a dry, earnest feeling. It lacks the juice of the repressed Victorian sexuality that ought to seethe throughout the evening. Kate Fry, sweet-voiced and pretty-eyed, makes a pleasant but uncharismatic Candida, not particularly helped by Michael Halberstam’s flatly efficient production.