Sunday, May 27, 2012
A MAN AND SOME WOMEN
Special to TorSun
25 MAY 2012
Pictured: Sharry Flett, Marla McLean, Kate Hennig
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Proponents of enlightened feminism have long held that in rethinking and restructuring traditional male and female roles, we will ultimately liberate not just women but men as well. Just how long that notion has been around, in fact, is evident in the Shaw Festival’s production of A MAN AND SOME WOMEN that opened on the stage of the Court House Theatre Thursday.
Premièred almost a century ago, it is the work of Githa Sowerby, a once-obscure British playwright, familiar to Shaw audiences through earlier productions of her plays, The Stepmother and Rutherford and Son. A MAN AND SOME WOMEN effectively (if occasionally predictably, for modern audiences) examines, within the microcosm of a single family, the chains a paternalistic society places not just on its women but on its men as well.
The play opens in the library of the home of Richard Shannon (Graeme Somerville) — but though it may be his name on the title, the home is, in fact, disputed territory, as Shannon’s grasping wife Hilda (Jenny L. Wright) and her husband’s maiden sisters, Rose (Kate Hennig) and Elizabeth (Sharry Flett), battle for supremacy. While the women bicker — the latest bone of contention between them is the care and rearing of young Jack (a suitably awww-inspiring Jordan Hilliker), nephew of Richard’s good friend, Jessica, and now the victim of parental misdeeds — the ‘master’ of the house is off attending to the affairs of his late mother who, for reasons unspecified, was estranged from his sisters. His return simply ups the stakes for the two domestic camps, as the three women dependent on his largesse — just how dependent, not even they are aware, it develops — carp over the spoils of his mother’s estate. Not surprisingly, a long-overdue explosion ensues, shaking everyone’s world to its very core.
In different hands, one suspects, this play could almost be dismissed as tedious polemic, but happily, director Alisa Palmer instead turns it into a delicious, often thought-provoking romp, keeping a tight rein on her hugely talented cast while allowing each of its members to strut her or his stuff within a well-balanced framework.
In consequence, there is superb, even electrifying, work, from Somerville and Flett, both of whom have long demonstrated their worth to this festival, and from Hennig, who returns to these stages having carved a niche for herself on larger, if no more impressive, stages. But if Hennig’s villainous turn is impressive in its cohesive understatement — and it most certainly is — it is a performance perfectly matched at every turn by Wright’s, who under Palmer’s tutelage, brings just a soupçon of Victorian melodrama to a performance that all but invites hisses from her audience. In the face of such expertise, a lesser actor than McLean might well disappear in the thankless role of the noble long-suffering Jessica, but this actor not only claims her territory, she owns it by play’s end.
Working within the limitations of the Festival’s most intimate and challenging spaces, designer Leslie Frankish creates a pair of memorable, contrasting spaces, carefully lit by Louise Guinand — spaces which Palmer fills with the kind of life that proves, once again, that when it comes to bringing life to “plays about the beginning of the modern age,” the Shaw Festival still has few peers.