By: David Sheward
Anyone who has ever seen the film My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn-or a high-school or community theater production-is familiar with Henry Higgins, the arrogant phonetics expert, and Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl he transforms into a refined lady by improving her speech. Fewer are aware of the original play Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s scathing 1912 comedy that emphasizes class conflict over romantic endings. In Pygmalion, after acquiring a newfound independence thanks to her superior elocution, Eliza strikes out on her own; in the musical, she returns to the domineering, immature Higgins.
In this smooth production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts (also presented at San Diego’s Old Globe earlier this year with many of the same actors), director Nicolas Martin emphasizes the cultural divide between Higgins and Eliza and downplays their possible romantic connection because that was what Shaw wanted. The director makes it quite clear that Eliza winds up marrying the poor but socially superior wastrel Freddy Enysford Hill (he sings "On the Street Where You Live" in the tuner) by adding a short wedding scene at the play’s finish. But Martin leaves a trace of amorous regret, Eliza casting a forlorn glance at her former teacher as the lights dim.
The tension is beautifully played by Robert Sean Leonard and Heather Lind as Higgins and Eliza, but the still-youthful-at-44 Leonard fails to relish Higgins’s narcissistic nastiness. The actor delivers a dry, witty professor but not a truly memorable one. Lind, on the other hand, clearly enjoys Eliza’s guttersnipe-ish ways and frolics in her depiction of the girl’s fiery spirit. This makes her transformation to faux upper crust credible, though her Cockney is so thick and muddy at times as to be indecipherable.
This is a thoughtful staging, letting you chew on Shaw’s radical ideas about language, feminism, and social strata. The big laughs don’t arrive until the entrance of Don Lee Sparks as Eliza’s philosophically inclined, dust collector father. The actor is well-named as he lights comic fires, using Shaw’s brilliant witticisms, blasting middle-class morality and upper-class hypocrisy. Paxton Whitehead is a delightfully befuddled Colonel Pickering, and Maureen Anderman is an elegant Mrs. Higgins. Caitlin O’Connell is properly authoritarian as Higgins’s motherly housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. Leonard’s boyishness and the strictness of the maternal figures in Higgins’s life (Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Pearce) further enforce the teacher’s immaturity and inability to form an adult relationship with Eliza, a fascinating strain from director Martin, one not brought out in most productions.
Alexander Dodge created a gorgeous revolving set, and the costumes by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood evoke the general period, but some of the hemlines on the ladies’ gowns are a bit short for 1912.
July 18-27. Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Mass. Tue 7:30pm, Wed-Thu 2pm & 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 3:30pm & 8pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission. $20-70. (413) 597-3400. www.wtfestival.org