THE WAY OF THE WORLD by William Congreve, directed by Peter Hinton, with Caroline Cave, Mike Shara, Tanja Jacobs, Damien Atkins, Nancy Palk and C. David Johnson. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (55 Mill). Previews Wednesday (July 2), opens July 3 and runs to August 2, Monday- Saturday 7:30 pm, mats Wednesday and Saturday 1:30 pm. $34-?$65, stu $28, rush $5-?$20. 416-866-8666. Rating: NNNNN
William Congreve’s the way of The World may be a Restoration comedy, but don’t look for powdered wigs and silk waistcoats.
Director Peter Hinton has set the play, written in 1700, in the late 1950s, with the machinations and witty dialogue of the original resonating in the prosperous Eisenhower period.
“The Dior couturier look of the period parallels the elegance of the 18th century, when it was written,” says actor Tanja Jacobs, who plays the self-?involved Lady Wishfort. “In both periods, there’s a sense of idealized, unachievable fashion that everyone desires.
“The 50s setting suggests a society that’s coming out of the deprivation of war and revelling in the lavishness of a new prosperity.”
“The political upheavals of the 60s are yet to come,” adds Damien Atkins, cast as the comical Tony Witwoud, a foolish dandy who aspires to enter the upper class.
“While the 50s are in the past for today’s viewers, we know this period. That setting requires that we take the play seriously and not distance it as a period piece that has no relevance to our lives.”
While money, business connections or celebrity status determine today’s social pecking order, the most powerful people in the play are those who command the most elegant wit.
The plot is a complex interweaving of characters
who want to show off their cleverness yet have trouble expressing their true feelings. Fickle superficial relationships mean that people utter endearments to a different person with every cup of tea; hidden affairs are as vital as the search for a true soulmate.At the centre of the tale are the elegant Millamant and the fast-?thinking Mirabell, who dance around each other for several acts before admitting their mutual attraction and establishing, in one of the play’s best scenes, the rules of their relationship.
Before the play begins, Mirabell falsely wooed Lady Wishfort, Millamant’s aunt, to get to her niece. Discovering the plot, Lady Wishfort’s love has turned to hate.
“She’s an incredibly comic creation, but also amazingly human,” offers Jacobs. “Like all great comic figures, Lady Wishfort is unable to control what she exposes about herself. She’s a tremendously needy woman, the victim of her own impulses.
“Loud and large, she craves flattery and is obsessed with staying young. But by the end of the play, she reveals a generosity of spirit that makes her more than merely comic.”
That richness of characterization also applies to others onstage, including Atkins’s character, Witwoud. Like most plays of the period, a character’s name underlines a key personality trait.
“But in Witwoud’s case,” smiles Atkins, “the emphasis isn’t on ‘wit’ but rather ‘woud’ – he would like to be part of society, seen as a great wit and loved by all.
“Yet while he’s often a figure of fun, Witwoud’s desperate for friends. There’s a real sense of melancholy and bravado in the man.”
Despite the script’s intricate language, the actors emphasize its humanity and contemporary resonances. The play’s funny, darkly so in moments of cruelty, but also sexy, sometimes bittersweet and ultimately filled with heart.
“We have to ground it in reality,” admits Atkins. “To do a production that’s clever just for the sake of cleverness is wrong. Despite the glittering comic dialogue, we can empathize with these people.”
“We also want to make the play’s hypocrisy understandable to today’s audience,” continues Jacobs. “Peter has encouraged us to explore what motivates people to create the brittle masks they present to others. Congreve shows compassion for those who feel inadequate; our society, with its worship of celebrity, encourages that inadequacy.
“The core of any great comedy, after all, is human frailty.”