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Shaw's Candida: entertaining but flawed; Candida Starring Joanne Woodward. Comedy by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Michael Cristofer.

The opening bill of the season at the Circle in the Square raises the question: Is an approximation of "Candida" better than no production at all? The answer from this playgoer is a qualified yes.

Joanne Woodward, the star of the current revival, commands the requisite qualities of tender maternalism, stability, and sharp intelligence that enable the wife-mother-sister of the first two acts to emerge as the independent mistress of her fate in Act III. Furthermore, the Eugene Marchbanks of Tait Ruppert manages to blend believably the contrasting characteristics of strength and weakness, naive gaucherie and perceptive insights that Shaw prescribed. These two performances are the principal assets of the version staged by Michael Cristofer.

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But where do we go from there? First of all to the published George Bernard Shaw text. Shaw's opening stage direction reads: "A fine October [1894] morning in the north east suburbs of London." By degrees, he arrives at the specific locale of the play, the drawing room of St. Dominic's parsonage, presided over by the ebullient Christian Socialist, Rev. James Mavor Morell (Ron Parady). Mr. Cristofer has chosen to change the season to spring and update the year to 1905.

Such relatively minor alterations may seem harmless enough. But in terms of accent, the characters have all been transplanted from London to provincial mid-America. At one stroke, the lower-, middle-, and upper-class differences of speech essential to the flavor and atmosphere of the comedy have been eliminated. Since many well-trained American and resident British-born actors are available who can handle accents, there would seem to be no reason for the odd sea change.

Such a fundamentally mistaken approach naturally affects, and in many respects, afflicts the performance as a whole. Acting Shaw requires a thorough mastery of the two essentials of comedy: deep conviction and an accomplished sense of style. The degree of conviction that animates the Circle in the Square "Candida" doesn't compensate for its efficiencies in matters of concept and style.

Thanks to the comic sturdiness of this Shavian "Pleasant Play," the audience at the preview I attended found much entertainment in "Candida." But the lack of restraint permitted by the director, not to mention some downright cheapness, detracted from the play's pleasantness.

Even Miss Woodward is not immune to the prevailing misguidance. Shaw's stage directions for the marvelous speech in which Candida decides between her self-complacent but well-intentioned husband and the outsider poet, Marchbanks, contains such guidelines as "with deepening gravity" and "with sweet irony." Miss Woodward works herself up to a tearful outburst, sweeping all the family photographs off Morell's desk.

A more or less adequate supporting cast includes Jane Curtin as Prossie, John Gilliss as Lexy Mill, and Ronald Bishop as Candida's slightly regenerate father. The cluttered setting for the production was designed by Kenneth Foy, with costumes by Richard Hornung and lighting by Paul Gallo. Snatches of Bellini, Chopin, and Clementi serve as incidental music and accompany the superfluous dumb show that introduces each act. The revival is being presented by special arrangement with the Kenyon Festival Theater of Gambier, Ohio, where it originated last summer.

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