Widowers’ Houses a romantic comedy/farce/satire with social significance at Aurora

Background (L) Dan Hoyle as Harry Trench and (R) Michael Gene Sullivan as Cokane.
Foreground (C) Megan Trout as Blanche Sartorius and (R) Warren David Keith as Mr. Sartorius in G.B. Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses.

WIDOWERS’ HOUSES: Comedy by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Joy Carlin. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. 510-843-4042 or www.auroratheatre.org

January 26 – February 25, 2018

Widowers’ Houses a romantic comedy/farce/satire with social significance at Aurora. Rating: ★★★★☆

George Bernard Shaw’s playwriting career began in 1892 with Widowers’ Houses that had to be produced in a private club under the auspices of the Independent Theatre Society to escape censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. It is an old war-horse that does not often reach the stage. Aurora Theatre Company mounted a well-received version in 1997 and one wonders why a repeat.

It is a rhetorical question since as the program emphasizes “gentrification, rent prices, and social responsibility are as timely today as it was 1892 London premiere.” The present staging keeps Shaw’s social consciousness intact adding more humor yet is thoughtful without being didactic.

Indication of farce is surmised when Dan Hoyle, a comedic genius with limber body and mobile face is listed as a main character in the program. This suggestion is amplified when a German waiter prissily sets two tables with menus and napkins under a huge projection of the Rhine River before two men enter. They are Harry Trench a poor but aristocratic young doctor and his travelling companion William Cokane (“Don’t call me Billy”). Trench has met and become infatuated (in love?) with strong willed Blanche who is on tour with her father the elegant Mr. Sartorius. It is a hot and heavy affair between the two professed lovers that might lead to marriage.  A prenuptial meeting, with stipulations, is to be formulated at the Sartorius mansion in fashionable London on their return.

We learn that Sartorious’ is a slumlord whose wealth is derived from the rent that is collected by his bedraggled lackey Lickcheese who is fired for being kind to a tenant by spending a pound for repairs. When Trench learns of the source of his future father-in-law’s wealth he nobly insists that he and Blanche must live on his meager income. This is unacceptable to Blanche who has been brought up in luxury causing a deep schism between them.  Trench after learning that his personal income comes from the interest on a mortgage that Sartorius holds on the slum property, loses  some of his altruism. Shaw inserts some wicked lines about the ungrateful and destructive nature of the poor and need to keep the social structure intact. Some of the lines will make you cringe but Warren David Keith’s delivery of Sartorius’ cruel justifications is spoken with quiet sincerity.

The third act has some curious plot twists involving making money from tearing down of the slums allowing gentrification. The plans for this turn of events are not clearly defined and Lickcheese and Cokane’s role in the scheme seems hardly plausible. Never-the-less Trench has descended from the moral high-ground and will go along with the scheme and he reunites with Blanche.

Shaw designated this early work as “Play Unpleasant” and it is truly that. It is also a reminder that not much has changed since the 1890s London with the present homeless situation, divisive income dichotomy and the continual gentrification surrounding us.

Aurora Theatre’s production allows Shaw’s philosophy to take center stage while delivering a semi-romantic comedy with style. Much of this is attributable to Joy Carlin’s pacing and top-notch acting by most of her cast. Megan Trout takes center stage with her furious outbursts as the spoiled Blanche who physically wrestles with her maid and verbally spars with Trench and her father. Shaw who loves strong women characters most certain would approve of her acting. Howard Swain gives an over the top performance as Lickcheese that is enhanced by Callie Floor’s costumes first being bedraggled and lastly dressed as a fop.

Warren David Keith as Sartorius delivers his lines with quiet firm conviction almost giving truth to his denunciations of the lower/working classes. Dan Hoyle is the surprise of the evening. You can almost see the desire to take a pratfall or display the mobility of facial gestures but he plays it straight. He makes a marvelous transition from the high-minded doctor to humbly accepting his final role in the money making scheme and enjoying Blanche’s advances.

Running time is two hours and 20 minutes with two brief intermissions. All in all there is truism in the adage that a lesson taught with humor is a lesson remembered. A definite should see production.

CAST: Dan Hoyle as Dr.  Harry Trench; Warren David Keith as Sartorius; Sarah Mitchell as (Waitress/Annie); Michael Gene Sullivan as Cokane; Howard Swain as (Lickcheese); and Megan Trout as Blanche.

CREATIVE TEAM: Kent Dorsey, sets & lights; Callie Floor, costumes; and Chris Houston, sound.

Kedar Adour, MD

Courtesy of www.theatreworldim2.com.

Background (L) Dan Hoyle as Harry Trench and (R) Michael Gene Sullivan as Cokane. Foreground (C) Megan Trout as Blanche Sartorius and (R) Warren David Keith as Mr. Sartorius in G.B. Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses.