Reviewed by James Karas
Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director, can claim another coup in the production of Githa Sowerby’s A Man and Some Women which opened at the Court House Theatre. The play premiered in 1914 and was not produced again until 1996. This is its first production in Canada.
A Man and Some Women is a somewhat melodramatic piece that paints an utterly bleak picture of segments of British society before World War I. There is a social structure that weighs crushingly on this middle-class family that is financially voracious, emotionally sterile and shackled to a moral universe like a chain gang.
The man of the title is Richard Shannon (Graeme Somerville), a decent person and a prominent scientist who is living with his wife Hilda (Jenny L. Wright), a cold, mean, and greedy woman who would try the patience of Job. Richard is supporting his two sisters, a couple of old maids (that is the right expression) who have no skills and, as it turns out, no money. Rose (Kate Hennig) is a mean-spirited gossip with a sharp nose that can cut through concrete. Her sister Elizabeth (Sharry Flett) is decent but ineffectual in the emotional penitentiary that goes for the Shannon house.
The catalyst for the plot is Jessica (Marla McLean), an attractive cousin who is “in love” with Richard. The quotation marks are necessary because love in this house is not Platonic, it is downright antiseptic.
The play opens on a note of desperation and the tone is maintained throughout except for a few unintended laughs. Somerville gives a very dramatic performance as Richard, a man on the verge of exploding. His wife’s demands are insatiable and he pretends that his sisters are contributing something towards their upkeep just to keep his wife’s venomous mouth shut. Ostensibly what he needs is more money but we know that that is only a superficial need.
Wright, her back straight, her face almost expressionless except for cold contempt, presents a frightful idea of a woman whose emotional sterility is complete and whose sole desire is for more money. A terrific performance.
Hennig’s Rose is a dried up woman who is as evil as she is useless. Flett’s Elizabeth is equally dried up but she is at least decent.
McLean’s Jessica is the breath of fresh air. She is self-supporting, attractive, decent and able to take a moral stand. She and Richard declare their love for each other but the moral and social universe that they occupy is so stultifying that it prevents them from being able to break away from it.
Alisa Palmer has directed a highly effective production of this melodramatic play and it is worth seeing for that alone, not to mention the fact of the play’s provenance.
Githa Sowerby (1876-1970) was a British writer who was practically unheard of in Canada until Jackie Maxwell, produced Rutherford and Son in 2004. In 2008 Maxwell gave Sowerby’s The Stepmother its North American premiere in an outstanding production at the Court House Theatre. What theatre company (and audience, for that matter) can claim to have three Sowerby plays under its belt? None, I venture to guess.
A Man And Some Women by Githa Sowerby opened on May 24 and will run in repertory until September 22, 2012 at the Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.