All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The history of “Pygmalion,” the insanity of war, the personal lives of artists, and the deep, deep love that can develop between friends are among the many subjects broached in letters George Bernard Shaw exchanged with one of his muses, Beatrice Stella Campbell, known to the world as the celebrated actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, from the early decades of the last century until Mrs. Campbell’s death in 1940.
The letters reveal the attitudes of a specific time as lived by two extraordinary people. Found intact in a hat box among Mrs. Campbell’s possessions, the complete collection of missives was distilled by Jerome Kilty for a play, “Dear Liar,” meant to be read from scripts and being given an intimate production at the Farmhouse Studio of Hedgerow Theatre.
When I say “intimate,” I am not exaggerating. Actors Penelope Reed and Zoran Kovcic are rarely more than five feet from you at any given time, and Reed makes constant eye contact with members of the audience.
The closeness makes the reading more immediate. You seem with be with Shaw and Mrs. Campbell as they are conversing, pleading with, scolding, teasing, or just trading theater or political gossip with the other. Although the text comes from written material, Kilty has crafted the Shaw-Campbell correspondence so they seem as it they’re meant to be as much spoken as read. Reed and Kovcic help by giving personality to the epistlers and by emphasizing given passages to express anger, delight, flirtation (Shaw’s), coquettishness (Campbell’s) and other ploys and emotions. Campbell’s letters demonstrate the freedom of the artist while Shaw’s show how practicality blends with wit and leads to dramatic expression. Both correspondents make fun of their advancing age, Campbell wondering aloud if she can get away with playing the teenage Eliza Doolittle while she is age 49, Shaw talking about the toll being an octogenarian takes on him. (He lived to be 94 and died from an accident, not ill health).
With the Hedgerow’s main theater getting an overhaul, including a rebuilt stage, Reed and Kovcic are working at the Farmhouse Studio, the actors’ residence and rehearsal space down the road, and their presentation seems not only intimate but informal.
There is plenty of acting, but in general, Reed and Kovcic share the letters with you. They imply the mood and tone of Mrs. Campbell’s or Shaw’s words, but they make no attempt to play their characters at different ages or give physicality to the performance. Their “Dear Liar” suggests the characters through a series of sketches rather than aiming at full portrayals. Reed paces the stage with the energy inherent in Mrs. Campbell’s words and phrasing while Kovcic remains fairly stationary at stage-right near a chair by a table that is set for a proper English tea.
Time and place is conveyed by the voice, and Reed does credit to Mrs. Campbell with her trained instrument that can register in a three-octave scale and have a remarkable effect when Mrs. Campbell responds to a Shaw comment about her ability to project from the stage while Kovcic, with his perfect diction and knack for finding rhythm and meaning in a line takes a more subtle, ironic approach.
Possibly because of the setting or time, neither actor has polished his or her performance. The first-night reading had some passages that made it seem as if Reed and Kovcic were still feeling their way through the material, but charm, good will, and acting craft in general make up for any roughness in pace or caution in wrapping one’s tongue around a particular phrase. Hedgerow’s leading couple make you happy to be in the company of Mrs. Campbell and Shaw, whose letters are entertaining and whose lives are revealed through their writing.
In addition to hearing a lot about the obstacles that prevented “Pygmalion” from going on until almost a year after it was originally scheduled, and then bumping into the opening days of World War I, you become acquainted with Shaw’s attitude towards his wife, Charlotte, and Mrs. Campbell’s personal struggles with romance, poverty, and the loss of her son weeks before WWI will end. (Her husband, Patrick Campbell, was also killed in battle, during the Boer War.)
Shaw’s relationship with his wife is particularly interesting. My impression is Shaw’s marriage was one of partnership and companionship that had little to do with romance or intimacy, as Shaw was a great advocate for celibacy and seemed almost opposed to sex as an act that saps one’s strength and vitality.
“Dear Liar” shows Shaw as quite romantic and quite willing to forgo scruples about vitality — or marriage — if Mrs. Campbell would only succumb to his entreaties to elevate their friendship into a dalliance. Charlotte Shaw comes across as long-suffering and mistreated by a man who doesn’t seem to love her in a way that fosters happy marriage. Shaw’s letters show him as dismissive and brutally neglectful to his wife. It is Mrs. Campbell who seems to have sympathy for Charlotte and her ordeals and who reminds Shaw about his obligations. While Shaw is infatuated with Mrs. Campbell, she has an affair and marries George Cornwallis-West, from whom she is later divorced.
Hearing Shaw in love is a revelation. Hearing how Mrs. Campbell can parry words with the great master of letters and call hin “Joey” because he reminds her of a puerile clown, is also a delight. (Of course, we know Mrs. Pat is verbally clever. I often use the admonition, “Don’t scare the horses,” based on Mrs. Pat saying she doesn’t care how people behave as long as they do nothing in public to scare the horses.)
Reed and Kovcic could be crisper in their deliveries, and no doubt they will be as “Dear Liar” proceeds and the content of each letter becomes more familiar and anticipated. As it is, the actors are charming and create an atmosphere that says you are into the room with these two theater geniuses — triumphs, setbacks, warts, and all.
Susan Wefel directs the production. Reed and Kovcic wear white tops, Reed’s a flowing blouse, and black pants that seem fitting for the occasion. The tea set that anchors the stage gives a nice (and the only)sense of place and period.
“Dear Liar” runs through Sunday, June 22 at Hedgerow’s Farmhouse Studio, 146 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets a $25 and can be ordered by calling 610-565-4211 or going online to www.hedgerowtheatre.org.