How many vowel sounds can you squeeze out of the word “taxi” or “saucy”?
A lot, if you’re Rana Kay playing Eliza Doolittle, the dirty-cheeked flower girl transformed into a society princess by that prig Henry Higgins. And when Steven Carpenter’s huffy Higgins bullies Kay’s Eliza too much, her squeal of “Aaa-ooow-whuuuu-hhh!” defies accurate spelling. It’s an operatic caterwaul.
Talking the talk is what George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is all about, and the lean but elegant production by the Washington Stage Guild splendidly minds its P’s and Q’s. The small but scrappy Stage Guild has made a habit of Shaw for more than 25 years, and the practice pays off in this tartly acted show.
Especially lover-ly, to steal a refrain from that famous “Pygmalion”-based musical, “My Fair Lady,” are the sterling performances in supporting roles that are anything but minor. Start with Laura Giannarelli’s sturdy demeanor and incorruptible decorum as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’s no-nonsense housekeeper; the way Giannarelli keeps Carpenter’s Higgins on his heels is a delight. So, too, is Lynn Steinmetz’s knowing control as Higgins’s savvy mother.
Then there’s Conrad Feininger as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s gloriously shiftless father. He bamboozles Higgins and his sidekick, Col. Pickering (the warm Vincent Clark), with his impregnable logic regarding the hazards of the middle class and the glories of extortion. Feininger, deep-voiced and unflappably composed, could hardly be more gruff or more puckishly persuasive in the role.
None of this eclipses Carpenter’s surly Higgins or Kay’s clattering Eliza, although there are early moments when you think Kay’s dogged defensiveness might be passing over some of the character’s comedy. Then Kay’s dressed-up but nervous Eliza appears at Mrs. Higgins’s tea party and beautifully bobbles the upper-crust hobnobbing, and the actress gets basketfuls of laughs with the hybrid syntax.
Carpenter, for his part, is such a starchy, sexless Higgins that a romance with Eliza is almost impossible to believe. That’s not criticism; it’s Shaw. And if you only know the tale through the musical (an inevitably sentimental adaptation that Shaw forbade while he was alive), now is your chance to compare: “My Fair Lady” is playing at Arena Stage.
The Stage Guild show will be the more modest affair by far. With its tight budget in the low-ceiling quarters of the Undercroft Theatre, physically it’s a pocket “Pygmalion.”
But Basmah M. Alomar’s costumes are extremely handsome and well-cut, from Higgins’s topcoat and smoking jacket to a sleeveless slate-gray gown for Eliza. The efficient settings by Kirk Kristoblas, niftily lighted by Marianne Meadows, make witty use of door-size, three-side panels that rotate to suggest different locales. (The Greeks had them: They’re called periaktoi.)
Director Bill Largess doesn’t have any bright interpretive tricks up his sleeve — no psychoanalytic angle explaining Higgins, no turning up the postmodern heat under class-and-gender issues that are already at a near boil. But he does insist on energy and precision, and the cast’s response is lively and, yes, lover-ly.
by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Bill Largess. With Nora Palka, Mimsi Janis and Phil Dickerson. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Nov. 19 at the Undercroft Theatre, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Call 240-582-0050, or visit stageguild.org.