A MAN AND SOME WOMEN by Githa Sowerby, directed by Alisa Palmer (Shaw). At the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to September 22. $24-$90. 1-800-511-7429, shawfest.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
During her tenure at the Shaw Festival, Jackie Maxwell has regularly championed the work of women playwrights and directors. In the process, she's introduced audiences to British author Githa Sowerby (1876-1970), a member (like Shaw) of the Fabian Society and an early feminist playwright.
The festival has previously staged Sowerby's Rutherford and Son and The Stepmother; this year Alisa Palmer directs A Man And Some Women, which is about liberation, but not, on the surface, for women. It's a tiny gem of a play, given a fine production by the Shaw ensemble.
The man of the title is Richard Shannon (Graeme Somerville), who breaks a long cycle of family dependence defined by obligation and financial need rather than love. Those who hold him in thrall are his controlling, condescending wife, Hilda (Jenny L. Wright) and his unmarried, poor-as-churchmice sisters, the bitter, gossipy Rose (Kate Hennig) and the more gracious Elizabeth (Sharry Flett).
Richard would like to leave England for Brazil to pursue his interest in the sciences. The opportunity is there, but family duty rules his life until the intervention of Jessica Hendred (Marla McLean), an independent woman who loves Richard and encourages him to cut the emotional and financial ties that suffocate him.
Though the play occasionally feels small in scope and has a truncated climactic confrontation, Palmer's production lets the strength of the writing shine through.
The actors handle the subtext with thrilling suggestiveness, never leaving us in doubt of the unspoken desires and submerged anger felt by their characters, whose relationships are often desperately needy and stunted.
Somerville conveys a staunch sense of reliability as the man with a secret past, but we can see the cracks in his veneer as his family demands more and more of him. They are, he says in their defence, so helpless, to which Jessica adds, "yes, and such tyrants."
As Hilda, Young hides a soul of nastiness behind her smile and quietly needling words; she's driven by the desire for power and money.
McLean's Jessica stands for the spirit of a new age, a woman who earns her own living and isn't dependent on anyone. But she still has a foot in the previous era, seeing herself as "only a woman" and unable to ask Richard to give up his dreams for her; she won't become another woman to whom he owes so much.
Hennig gives such a range of colours to Rose that the figure doesn't appear simply as a blackmailing villain. Flett brings a warmth and courage to the penniless Elizabeth, a stranger to love and clueless about how to survive outside the family, a naive soul who realizes that she has to find a means to make her own financial way in the world.
Leslie Frankish's costumes and sets, lit by Louise Guinand, echo the emotional tone of each act. In Richard's library, the atmosphere is intentionally airless, while in Jessica's apartment, where an element of liberation comes into the story, there is some breathing space.
The play sometimes provokes audience laughter for what viewers perceive, I think, as touches of melodrama. But A Man And Some Women is really about repression and the explosions that occur when no one can let off steam.