Manners and material comforts
California Stage1723 25th St.
Sacramento, CA 95816
George Bernard Shaw is venerated (justly) as second only to William Shakespeare as an English dramatist. So why do we encounter his perceptive plays so rarely in Sacramento?
It was not always thus. As late as 1996, the Sacramento Theatre Company staged Shaw’s Candida, then Arms and the Man in 2001 (with young Stephanie Gularte as a maid). When Gularte launched Capital Stage soon after, she scheduled Mrs. Warren’s Profession (a Shawian comedy about a businesswoman who got rich running tidy brothels). But in a pinch, Gularte reluctantly dropped Mrs. Warren in favor of something more contemporary and less challenging. We haven’t seen much Shaw in town since. Most likely, you’ve never even heard of Widowers’ Houses, the 1892 script which is now getting a production at California Stage Company.
It may be an early effort, but Shaw’s classic themes are evident. The story concerns the slumlord Sartorius (Loren Taylor), who lives luxuriously while his working-class rent collector Lickcheese (Rick Murphy) squeezes hapless tenants for payments. Taylor has the miserly thing down (he’s played Scrooge), but Sartorius is different: He has a pretty daughter, Blanche (Jessica Goldman), for whom he’s purchased an education and material comforts. Now, he’s after a good husband: Blanche gets engaged to young Trench (Robert August), who is handsome, if not rich. But things come undone when the odious origin of Sartorius’ wealth is revealed. Broad social hypocrisy is then lampooned as the tables are turned on several characters—they fall back on manners and “breeding” to justify serving their own ends.
Director Janis Stevens, who clearly appreciates Shaw’s greatness, does much to bring this big play (three acts, two intermissions, tons of lines) into focus, and largely succeeds. The production runs on a shoestring budget (basic sets, sound, costumes), and there were a few awkward moments on opening night. But Taylor is a treat as the cagey-but-choleric landlord who’s sheltered his daughter, and Goldman gives us a feisty, independent young woman in that part. See it while you can: There probably won’t be another local production for decades.