nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
March 12, 2007
Should you feed off the ills of society when you feel powerless to change it? This is one of the pointed questions that reverberates in George Bernard Shaw's play Widowers' Houses, adapted by Ron Russell and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. By transplanting the action from turn-of-the-century England to Harlem in the 1990s, Russell and Simmons successfully show a period of urban renewal in New York City history that parallels that in the original script and makes the action as relevant today as it was when it was written.
Shaw addresses large social issues, such as housing for the poor and urban renewal, but at its most basic, the play is about money. Those who have it are in. Too bad for those who don't. In the play, two friends, the bumbling and inarticulate Harry Trench, who has just passed his medical examinations, and the suave yet pretentious William de Burgh Cokane, travel and meet a steely businessman, Mr. Sartorius, and his attractive daughter, Blanche. Harry and Blanche immediately fall in love and want to marry. Sartorius asks Harry to solicit, in writing, the approval of his prominent family. Harry complies, congratulations roll in, and the deal is done. Almost.
A number of revelations ensue: Sartorius is a slumlord; Lickcheese, his rent collector, transgresses; Harry discovers the source of his fixed income; and the engagement is called off. But, not to worry. Lickcheese proves an able catalyst for much of the action, and hits upon a workable scheme to bring all the money-minded characters in sync.
The multi-racial cast (another effective aspect of this adaptation) makes certain lines resonate, as when Sartorius (black) insists on letters from Harry's family (white) welcoming his daughter into the family unconditionally. Director Ron Russell accepts the characters as caricatures. This is particularly true of the female roles: the parlor maid, played by Jessica Richardson, and Blanche, played by Rachael Holmes. Holmes displays the character's entitlement on both sleeves, with little sentiment shown for her broken engagement. James Wallert is wonderfully clueless as Harry, the play's quasi moral conscience, and reacts with appropriate knee-jerk indignation at Sartorius's source of money. Peter Jay Fernandez delivers an elegant and imperious Sartorius. Simmons plays Cokane as an interlocutor, setting up scenes for Harry as well as reinforcing Sartorius's opinions. In his portrayal of Lickcheese, Jacob Ming-Trent gives us the sole three-dimensional character; sincere and scheming, uneducated but smart, poor and resourceful, humble yet proud. Energetic and earnest, he fills the stage and demands our attention. In short, he takes the play from Shaw and makes the whole Harlem experiment believable and worthwhile.
The marvelous sets designed by Cameron Anderson are simultaneously plush and simple, as exemplified by an imposing staircase that converts into a book-lined library. Margaret E. Weedon introduces both eras in her costumes—an ascot for Cokane, a morning jacket for Sartorius, a contemporary wool blazer for Harry, and a particularly eye-catching coat and skirt for Blanche in Act III. Tyler Micoleau's lighting—especially the sun-drenched patio—adds to the production.
Russell and Simmons set an ambitious agenda with Shaw's first play. One century after it was written the premise still works. However terrible the consequences, it is business and the money it generates that come first. Congratulations to Epic Theatre Center for undertaking this challenging project.