Moya O’Connell (left), Gord Rand and Marla McLean form a terrific triangle in The Philanderer.
THE PHILANDERER by George Bernard Shaw (Shaw Festival). At the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to October 12. $35-$113, stu mats $24. 1-800-511-7429, shawfest.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
The triangle at the centre of George Bernard Shaw's The Philanderer, directed by Lisa Peterson, is one of the most passionate you'll ever see onstage. The action begins with a mutual orgasm and ends with an erotic tango of desire.
Written early in Shaw's career, the play looks at love, theatre criticism, the New Woman, doctors, the ideas of Henrik Ibsen and, depending on which ending you see, marriage as a potentially happy or unhappy end to the union of an amorous couple.
Which ending? Huh? Shaw wrote two: in the earlier, he offers a sombre look at a man and woman several years after their wedding. He was convinced, though, by friend and fellow writer Lady Colin Campbell to replace the ending with a generally lighter third act.
Peterson uses the original ending, which gives an intentional sourness to the previous action. In the past, other productions at the Shaw Festival have added this as a fourth act, but here we have the play as Shaw originally conceived it.
The title character, Leonard Charteris (Gord Rand), has given up his lover, Julia Craven (Moya O'Connell), for Grace Tranfield (Marla McLean), whom he claims he want to marry. The trouble is, Julia hasn't given up her claim on Charteris; she bursts in on them at Grace's flat and Charteris can barely keep the women from coming to blows.
Both in this scene and the next, set in the fictitious Ibsen Club, the talk frequently turns to the Norwegian writer's belief that women are not the property of men and have their own rights. The club itself only admits as members men who are not manly and women who are not womanly, in the conventional fashion.
In terms of Shaw's play, this gives both women real power, though of different sorts. McLean's Grace is perceptive and rational, O'Connell's Julia impulsive and irrational.
They're both excellent, as is Rand, who directs many of his lines as asides to the audience and offers plenty of intelligent arguments for how he deals with each partner. He's as seductive verbally as he is emotionally and physically.
Surrounding these three are Grace's father (Michael Ball), a drama critic; Julia's father (Ric Reid), who expects to die shortly of liver disease; her sister (Harveen Sandhu), a devoted member of the Ibsen Club and Paramore (Jeff Meadows), the respected doctor who diagnosed Craven's illness. Charteris does his best to deflect Julia's attentions to Paramore.
All this takes up the first two acts. Peterson gets fine performances from all, but she establishes too farcical a tone and not enough linking of confrontations.
There's little preparation for the darkness of the last act, set four years later. Relationships aren't those we'd expect, and Shaw takes a pragmatic, unsentimental look at the unsettled pairings as well as the difficulties of divorce in Victorian England.
This act, a comment on the impossibility of reconciling public morality with reality and desire, is the evening's best. Here designer Sue LePage and lighting designer Kevin Lamotte, who've drawn on a gorgeous colour palette for the earlier action, create a vast, smoke-filled, dark limbo, dominated by a long, black table filled with walnut shells, symbolic of the married couple's empty lives together.
The characters here appeal directly to the audience, involving us as witnesses to and hoped-for advocates of their various views.
But passion wins in the end, and a seductive dance of lust brings down the curtain on an exciting production.