- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 1, 2002

"If you can't get rid of the family skeleton," playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, "you may as well make it dance."

There is dancing aplenty at least metaphorically in the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts' new production of Shaw's "Candida" as characters shake out their souls to the time-honored tune of unrequited love.

The Rev. James Mavor Morell, the Christian socialist minister, spends his days plowing through his books and his nights making speeches, secure in the knowledge that he is the ultimate good man. Candida, his wife, is the epitome of the late-19th-century British gentlewoman. She's cool and collected, even when faced with an embarrassing father or a tubful of onions that need to be sliced.

Morell believes the two have a perfect life together predictable in its expression and grounded in respectability.

Into this best of all possible worlds comes Eugene Marchbanks, a self-professed poet who declares his love for Candida and explodes Morell's smug self-satisfaction. It is a situation fraught with peril and filled with possibilities. Will Candida leave her husband for a younger man? Will Marchbanks discover a more appropriate love? Will the clergyman regain his wife?

Love triangles were a common convention in late-19th-century British plays. Shaw's "Candida" presents the expected: the beautiful housewife starved for love, the overbearing husband increasingly wrapped up in his work, and the ardent younger poet whose arrival sets the household on its ear. The play's departure from the usual comes in its subtle shadings of meaning and its use of convention as a means to deeper understanding.

The family skeleton in this case is not the alcoholic uncle or the debauched brother but illusion of love and license, art and artlessness, all wrapped up in a veritable cloak of conventions. That can be a difficult thing for any production to dance around, as it is for Olney's, which at times strays from subtlety into mere slapstick.

Of course, caricature can lead to illumination. So, when Candida sweeps across the stage and Miss Garnett, the preacher's secretary, minces across, we know we are being led to a consideration of class differences as well as individual character. It's a dichotomy as obvious as the serpent that twines itself down the pillar on one side of set designer Robin Stapley's depiction of a Victorian clergyman's library. Such is the nature of farce.

As Morell, Ross A. Dippel looks the very picture of the self-satisfied Briton. In a nod to Freudian psychology, he comes complete with a set of idiosyncrasies that seem to hint at something roiling just beneath the surface. He toys with his jacket, constantly buttons and unbuttons his coat and occasionally snaps his suspenders.

His speech seems stilted, with unlikely pauses between the words giving a scripted quality to their delivery. Of course, this may come from the public nature of his character, who, after all, spends much of his time in the spotlight giving prepared speeches. Indeed, by the second act, once his illusions have been stripped away, Morell's words flow far more naturally.

As Candida, Valerie Leonard carries her role with grace and aplomb. She sweeps onto the stage with the proud posture and refined tones of the middle-class 19th-century woman, an accomplishment all the more obvious because her father, "a vulgar, ignorant, guzzling man," speaks with a cockney accent and has little of her finesse.

As Marchbanks, Jeffries Thaiss manages to capture some of the devil-may-care sensibility of the financially secure rebel, but his portrayal suffers a bit from some disjointed direction. Poets may be foolish, but they are seldom self-consciously so. Is it really necessary for Marchbanks to cower behind a door or jam his head under a table while the rest of him sticks out for all to see? Such antics get the easy laugh, to be sure, but they cloud the understanding of his character.

Strong supporting characters round out the cast. As Burgess, Morell's socially embarrassing father-in-law, Carter Jahncke makes a strong showing, complete with accent and elevated pinky. Eric Siegel does a fine job as Lexy, Morell's fawning curate, while Anna Belknap shines as Prosperine Garnett, Morell's secretary, who suffers from her own case of unrequited love.

More than a comedy of manners, the Olney's "Candida" points the way to some uncomfortable truths. That it can do this while simultaneously earning more than a few belly laughs from the audience is a testament to the strength of the production. A fine dance, after all.


***

WHAT: "Candida"

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and June 13. Through June 23.

TICKETS: $15 to $35, with some discounts

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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