English playwright Christopher Fry's "The Lady's Not for Burning" is Shakespeare-lite, designed for those who like their verse blank and their poetic debate pithy. It may have been bad luck for Fry to have written this gentle romantic comedy in 1948, the dawn of the age of "angry young men" who came to dominate the postwar world of letters, thus obscuring his efforts. But this play has undergone a mild revival in recent years, with the current production from the GMU Players in Fairfax the latest example.
Set in a medieval English village in 1400 -- "either more or less or exactly" as Fry describes it -- the play centers on the young lady in question, whom townspeople have accused of being a witch. The heroine faces burning at the stake for supposedly turning an old "rag and bone man" into a dog. She fights for her life, seeking refuge at the mayor's house, where much of the play takes place.
Meanwhile, a young soldier who has wearied of life arrives in town, confesses to killing the "rag and bone man" and asks to be hanged. But the mayor is much more interested in prosecuting witchcraft than murder. Religious bigotry, prejudice, suspicion and the nature of love are discussed by the townspeople in conversations rich in irony and with wordplay both shallow and romantic.
"Can I have your name?" one character asks another.
"It's yours," is the quick reply.
On the other hand, a chaplain who is often the object of ridicule muses, "Life is so full of diversity, I lose sight of eternity in the passing moment." It is an odd blend, like a conversation between the late comedian Steve Allen and philosopher Bertrand Russell might have sounded.
The play is directed by accomplished area actor Edward Gero, who is familiar to audiences at the Shakespeare Theatre and other notable venues. This is a dynamic production that falters only when Fry slows down the action by having several characters engage in quiet philosophical conversations.
Such is the case with a long interlude in Act 2 between Thomas Mendip, the sardonic and suicidal soldier, and Jennet Jourdemayne, the accused witch whom we would now call a feminist because she speaks her mind in the face of angry townspeople. Together, they explore their existential torment and fall in love. Despite some interesting passages and the efforts of actors David Burns (as Mendip) and Sarah Bever (Jourdemayne), the scene loses focus and begins to drag.
Burns is a bit weak in the irony department, downplaying the melancholy created by exposure to war and tending to play more to the swashbuckling and callow elements of his character. But Bever has a firm grasp of her character's clear-eyed intelligence and self-confidence.
Inflating a supporting role to a dominant position is character actor Billy Chace, who turns in the most fully actualized portrayal as the supercilious, self-absorbed and blustering mayor, Hebble Tyson, a man bewildered by the tumult about him. Chace is almost matched by Anne Stuecker as the testy and slightly addled matron Margaret Devize, whose mouth turns tight as a Ziplock seal as she watches the antics of her two dull-witted sons.
Just as Shakespeare would have it, there is eavesdropping, unrequited love, an abundance of physical comedy and an elopement, even as the larger issues Fry examines are left somewhat unresolved.
Milagros Ponce de Leon has created a warm setting that combines intricate detail with abstract elegance.
De Leon creates the mayor's home with rich stone textures for the floor and steps and solid, leaded windows suggesting the room's perimeter, above which Gothic arches float. A low, ivy-covered "stone" wall lies beyond. The medieval costumes from Kathleen McGhee are sumptuous.
This is a long play that it wouldn't hurt to read before attending, to become familiar with Fry's singular style.
"The Lady's Not for Burning" will be performed through Sunday at TheatreSpace at George Mason's Center for the Performing Arts, 4400 University Dr. in Fairfax. Showtime is 8 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets or information, call 703-993-8888.