‘Widowers’ Houses’ shows that slums are nothing new
On the surface, the four main characters of George Bernard Shaw’s “Widowers’ Houses” seem like well- mannered members of the English gentry in the late 19th century.
Not all is as it seems, though, as is soon revealed in the production presented by Aurora Theatre Company.
Sartorius (Warren David Keith), a widower, and his adult daughter, Blanche (Megan Trout), meet William Cokane (Michael Gene Sullivan) and his young friend Dr. Harry Trench (Dan Hoyle) during a trip to Germany in August 1890. They get along so well that Sartorius invites Cokane and Trench to visit the next month. He doesn’t know that Blanche and Trench have become attracted to each other.
During the September visit, Trench tells Sartorius that he wants to marry Blanche. At Sartorius’s stipulation, Trench writes to his relatives to get their blessing.
A complication arises with the arrival of the raggedy Lickcheese (Howard Swain), who oversees Sartorius’s properties and collects the rent. It becomes clear that Sartorius is a slum lord. He fires Lickcheese for spending too much for safety-related repairs.
He says that the tenants will ruin them within a few days. Later he says, “When people are very poor, you cannot help them.”
When Trench discovers the source of Sartorius’s wealth, he tells Blanche that they must live only on his income of 700 pounds a year and not take any of her father’s money. He doesn’t tell her why. She breaks off with him. He then learns that his income is tainted, too.
Five months later, Lickcheese returns arrayed in fine clothing (costumes by Callie Floor). Trench and Cokane are there, too. Lickcheese has a shady business proposition for Sartorius, who’s in no position to refuse. Trench must decide whether to take part and whether to reconcile with Blanche.
As astutely directed by Joy Carlin, the five main characters are well defined. Sullivan’s Cokane is a peace-maker when decorum is broken. Keith’s Sartorius is a snob.
Trout’s Blanche comes across as pretty but bratty. However, Aurora artistic director Tom Ross cites program notes from the company’s 1997 of the play. They say that Blanche “displays both the selfish cruelty of the upper classes and the passions compressed, perverted and rendered monstrous by the pressures of her disguise as a Victorian Lady.”
As Trench, however, Hoyle’s grimaces become distracting. On the other hand, Swain is a comic delight as Lickcheese. Also adding some comic notes is Sarah Mitchell in minor roles as the waiter in Germany and Sartorius’s maid.
Carlin’s direction goes awry only when she allows an angry Blanche to attack the maid and throw her on the floor.
On the other hand, projected photos of destitute people in London’s slums (scenic and lighting design by Kent Dorsey) between Acts 2 and 3 help to show just how callous Sartorius was.
But such destitution isn’t limited to that time and place. After the play ends, projected photos show today’s homeless people looking wretched on downtown streets or living in shabby tent cities. Graphs illustrate the dramatic rise of apartment rents in the Bay Area.
Even though this is Shaw’s first play and lacks the polish of his later masterworks, it’s still worth seeing, especially in this production.
Running about two and a half hours with two short intermissions, “The Widowers’ Houses” has been extended through March 4.
For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.