Lively and entertaining, the Center Stage production of George Bernard Shaw's "Candida" that opened Wednesday in Baltimore whizzes right over the sand traps of didacticism that Shaw was ornery enough to lay down through long stretches of the play. "Candida" is weak Shaw, but even weak Shaw is more robust than almost anything the contemporary stage produces. What are the right comparisons between Shaw and most recent drama? Claret and caffeine-free diet soda? Stilton and cheese-food? Dynamite and a whoopee cushion?
The explosive comic and intellectual energy in "Candida" is sparked by Shaw's version of the eternal triangle of husband, wife and lover. Shaw's husband is the pioneering socialist clergyman James Morell. His wife is the all-knowing Candida. And her would-be lover is the impulsive, romantic young poet Eugene Marchbanks. In other hands, this combination would result in adultery and romance. In Shaw's, it's the excuse for an analysis of the power structure of marriage and a high-spirited satire of the male animal.
Perverse to his toenails, Shaw naturally aimed most of his scorn at his own sex. Perhaps this was because he had too much sense to consider seriously giving up what he regarded as a male advantage: "Of the two lots," he wrote to the actress Ellen Terry, "the woman's lot of perpetual motherhood and the man's of perpetual babyhood, I prefer the man's I think."
Shaw's two "babies" in "Candida" are Marchbanks and Morell, the ludicrously sensitive poet and the pompous cleric. Marchbanks himself describes the pair as "a wretched little nervous disease ... and a pigheaded parson." Shaw is a little too fond of them -- certainly fonder than audiences may be. "Candida" is short on plot, so characters Morell and Marchbanks tend to strike attitudes and then do nothing but display them. You get a little tired of the same joke over and over.
The director of the Center Stage production, Rick Davis, largely avoids this problem through his brisk comic staging and with two pieces of astute casting. Richard Poe's Morell is basically a good fellow, innocently pedantic rather than bombastic. Quivering like jello, Benjamin White makes Marchbanks a cartoon of a "sensitive" poet. Where Poe is solid and sane-looking, White is skinny with burning dark eyes and wild dark hair -- facially he occasionally suggests Edward Scissorhands.
The actors play their differing qualities for high comedy. Poe's Morell keeps staring at the hysterical Marchbanks as if he can't believe him -- as if somewhere deep down he is convinced that this is a bad dream that a merciful God will let him wake from. And White makes Marchbanks unashamed to be absurd -- he dares to be a fool for love; he doesn't give a damn. Marchbanks has a habit, in moments of crisis, of draping himself weakly over the nearest piece of furniture, leaving the befuddled Morell -- defeated by his rival's very weakness -- blinking at him from the center of the room.
There's a generational war here too. Poor Morell, who has devoted his life to good works, is given no respect by the 18-year-old Marchbanks, who remorselessly assaults him with youth's absolutism and easy moral judgments. Morell is just honest -- and just middle-aged -- enough to think the boy may have a point.
Shaw satirizes these two men, scores points off them, gets laughs at their expense -- and brings them to life. Unfortunately, he takes Candida seriously, and the result is perhaps the most obnoxious female character in English drama. The whole plot turns on Morell and Marchbanks both adoring her, but you can't see why -- any sane man would run for the hills faced with this smug know-it-all. Starchy, smirking and controlling, Candida isn't Woman-as-Mother but Woman-as-Nanny. She's essentially a neuter. Shaw's vision of the superior woman didn't include sex.
The part is almost unplayable; probably it can work only if cast with a dazzling eccentric. Joyce O'Connor, an intelligent actress with both feet on the ground, brings some dry wit to the role, but she can't help playing into its annoying aspects. She keeps presenting herself with her hands on her hips. O'Connor doesn't understand that when Candida calls the men her "babies" or "boys," or lectures them about their silliness, the character is unbearable: the Eternal Feminine as Mary Poppins.
Shaw, who thought himself such a feminist, reserved all his fun for his male roles. His women are stuck being all-wise, knowing, pure, right -- not really human at all. Fortunately, his pugnacious energy barrels his plays through their weaknesses. In the end, he cared more about jokes, juicy acting roles, paradox and pace than about morals -- and we gladly endure his lectures for the pleasures of his stagecraft.
Candida, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Rick Davis. Set by Craig Clipper. Lights by Dennis Parichy. Costumes by Mary Mease Warren. With Louise Roberts, Richard Poe, Jon Krupp, Kenneth Gray, Joyce O'Connor, Benjamin White. At Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, through Feb. 10.