Shaw’s Pygmalion at The Sherman Playhouse

David Begelman

Area theatergoers had better hurry to see Pygmalion before it closes later this month. The show is a gem of a production, thanks to a consistently accomplished cast of many, and the exceptional direction of Jane Farnol. She is no stranger to staging dramas in which the hand of capability is all too apparent.

Pygmalion is George Bernard Shaw’s modern adaptation of the Greek myth about a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has created, Galatea (a name that means “sleeping love” in Greek). The play, reprising a variation on the theme, is the story of a speech professor, Henry Higgins (modeled on a real life phonetician, Henry Sweet) who, on a wager, turns a destitute flower girl with a hideous cockney accent into a dignified, well-spoken lady who is able to fool everyone in high society about her lowly origins. Higgins accomplishes the transformation by training the girl, Eliza Doolittle, to speak and behave like a lady.

Photo J: Peter Leskowicz, Wes Hart and Cameron Henderson in Goodspeed Opera's production of "Half a Sixpence."
Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Pygmalion has been a highly successful commercial vehicle on the stage, in a film starring Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard, and in its musical adaptation as the immensely popular My Fair Lady by Lerner and Loewe.

Less well known is the fact that the play is virtually crammed with a social philosophy that rumbles underneath a charming tale about transformation. Not the least of this are preachments about social stratification, class differences, the relationship between the sexes, and, most important, the idea that a person is the way he or she is treated.

Shaw was a playwright, who, like his forbear Ibsen, was a master at suffusing drama with commentary on the overriding social issues of the day. He averred in the preface to Pygmalion that he delighted in baiting the “wiseacres” who demand that art should never be didactic with “my contention that art should never be anything else,” a credo likewise preached by Tolstoy.

The Sherman Playhouse’s staging of the play incorporates a happy interweaving of production values from the moment the curtain goes up.

In the initial street scene, Higgins takes notes on the speech patterns of the flower girl and a wretched group of city dwellers huddled together around an improvised fire. The scene, bathed in an amber light, heightened a sense of the reality in which street people lived their forlorn lives. When the action switched to Higgins’ bachelor quarters stuffed with leather chairs and recording equipment, the stately parlor of his mother, or the ballroom in which Eliza makes her social debut among an assortment of upper-class types, the illusion of shifting circumstance was created seamlessly.

Every performer in this production contributed substantially to its success, especially its leads, Jennifer Schuck (Eliza Doolittle) and Steve Manzino (Henry Higgins). Ms. Schuck’s transformation from the “filthy street urchin” to the mature and polished product of her mentor’s tutelage was startling, and gratifyingly so. She was, in the opinion of this reviewer, even more impressive toward the end of the play when she gives the professor a lambasting for his callous treatment of her as an object of an experiment, without due regard to the human cost involved.

Steve Manzino’s interpretation of Shaw’s hero explored an aspect of Henry Higgins that was missing in Leslie Howard’s film interpretation of the role. Higgins is, after all, on the peevish side of temperament. If there are touches of Henry Sweet in the professor, then he is not above being cantankerous on more than one occasion, under the thumb of his mama, and with a “boundless contempt for stupidity.” Mr. Manzino’s portrayal of the role accentuated these personality traits, a spin on the portrayal of Higgins Shaw himself would have approved.

Other performers who portrayed leading characters in the play were likewise impressive in their roles. Katherine Almquist as Higgins’ mother radiated skillfully what Oscar Wilde would have described as the “exquisite condescension” of upper crust sensibility, together with a moderating effect on her son. Ms. Almquist was a perfect choice for the role.

Glenn R. Couture was a reliable Colonel Pickering, a steadfast companion of the professor who nevertheless had the edge on him when it came to sympathy for others and simple courtesy. Mr. Couture’s Colonel Pickering was the right antidote to Higgins’ irascibility and narcissism.

Ed Bernstein portrayed the spunky Alfred P. Doolittle with just the right panache to underscore the Shavian spin on ironies of class distinctions. In this important role (portrayed memorably by Stanley Holloway in the original My Fair Lady), Mr. Bernstein gave new meaning to being ejected from the ranks of the “undeserving poor” to newly acquired affluence on account of the praise accorded him by Professor Higgins in influential social circles. His discomfort in being suddenly out of his element was amusingly depicted by this actor.

Performers in minor roles acquitted themselves admirably. Joseph Russo was a callow Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the doting suitor of Eliza, who might be “several stories high on the street where she lives,” although nowadays perhaps best described as a stalker with honorable intentions. Joanna Dumitrascu as Clara and Sheila Echevarria as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill were delightful as social hangers-on who were nonplussed by the combination of Eliza’s perfectly articulated English interspersed with expressions like “not bloody likely.”

The set design by the director and three of her associates was perfectly adapted to the action, and four white wooden posts joined by two arches framed the scenes gracefully. David White’s sound included several appropriately chosen waltzes.

Overall, a directorial success for Ms. Farnol—with a little help from compatriots in the empire, like G.B.S.

Pygmalion opened at the Sherman Playhouse on August 8 and continues until August 30 of this year. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased by calling 860.354.3622 or online at Evening performances are at 8:00 PM, and there is a Sunday matinee on August 17th at 2:00 PM.

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