Delightful Pygmalion much more than fair

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Michael Toscano
Rana Kay plays the expressive Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, now playing at the Washington Stage Guild through Nov. 18. The original play, on which the movie My Fair Lady is based, has a different ending from the movie.
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Well, you certainly have your choice here, as Eliza Doolittle has come to town in two strikingly different vehicles. Arena Stage has the Lerner and Loewe musical classic My Fair Lady, based on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion. Meanwhile, Washington Stage Guild is presenting the source material itself, Shaw’s original 1913 play.

Many theater lovers will see both, of course, as My Fair Lady has one of the greatest musical scores of all time, and Pygmalion is the finest work from one of the preeminent playwrights of the last one hundred years.

The fact that one has music and the other does not is not the only striking difference between the two. They may share literary DNA, but each has grown into maturity as quite different stories.

Washington Stage Guild knows their Shaw, as this is the 25th production of his work they have mounted since 1988. Surprisingly, it’s their first attempt with this one, Shaw’s most popular play.

The love shows with this carefully calibrated version of a brilliantly structured story that revels in Shaw’s blending of sharp comment and subtle sentiment. Director Bill Largess and his cast deserve kudos for giving it to us straight, without trying to layer on sensibilities that are not required, but which must be tempting.

It happens all the time with this play. Shaw, who winced and then conceded to studio-mandated changes for the 1938 Leslie Howard film (and won an Oscar for the screenplay), would be pleased with the Stage Guild’s work.

Play and movie part ways

We think we know the story of Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl who becomes the subject of an experiment by prominent London linguist Henry Higgins. He boasts he can turn the plucky, street-wise lass with the horrid accent into a polished woman who can pass as a society lady by teaching her to speak properly.

But there are important differences between the ending of Shaw’s original version and how most of us view the story. That’s a legacy of the enduring Broadway musical, which was based on the film rather than the play. The musical was not produced until after Shaw’s death, because as long as he was around, no producers were allowed to do so.

Shaw was irritated even before My Fair Lady that his public might have had an impression of the story’s outcome that was different from his own, mostly because of the movie. Of course, he might have been more explicit in his second act to avoid that. Ambiguity abhors a vacuum, and audiences tend to focus on the ending they would prefer if one is not plainly laid out.

Or, he might have chosen a different title. After all, Pygmalion was the name of a king in Greek mythology who fell in love with a statue of Aphrodite, which came to life so they could marry.

That’s the more famous of two versions of the tale. In another version, the man is a sculptor who finds the female sex so full of faults that he carves one out of stone for himself. That does not sound like the makings of a happy ending. But that’s closer in spirit to what Higgins is up to, isn’t it?

This confusion prompted Shaw to write and publish an “epilogue,” that extends the story so Shaw could tell readers where he saw the characters going. Washington Stage Guild made the epilogue available to reviewers, and it provides fascinating insight that I will not share here as it may color your view of the play before you see it.

Fine cast and crew

Kirk Kristoblas’ scenic design is simple and understated, relying mostly on several rotating, three-sided painted flats to signal the location. There’s the rain-soaked portico at Covent Garden where Eliza (Rana Kay), Higgins (Steven Carpenter) and Colonel Pickering (Vincent Clark) meet. There’s Higgins’ “laboratory” at his upper class townhouse. And a couple of scenes occur in the drawing room of his mother, Mrs. Higgins (Lynn Steinmetz).

With little flash to distract us, the focus is on Shaw’s piquant dialogue, and the actors revel in both the words and the way they get to say them. It’s difficult to imagine much of the dialogue being nearly as effective if spoken in something other than the variety of English accents they use.

No one savors the sound of his own voice more than Higgins, of course, and a delicious cascade of syllables pours forth from Carpenter.

As Eliza, Kay is more successful after Eliza’s transformation from the streets to society gets underway. She’s not entirely convincing, and often incoherent, wallowing in the Cockney dialect during early scenes.

But when Eliza makes her debut, of sorts, by visiting with some ladies at Mrs. Higgins’ home, her depiction of a woman struggling to impose a fa├žade over her true nature is wildly funny. And Kay succeeds by underplaying the effort, allowing her voice and smile to steadily, slowly tighten with the strain. It is completely delightful.

In fact, her entire performance is a study in careful attention to character development. She seamlessly moves from early ambition through a dutiful student phase, and blossoms into defiant independence. In early scenes, she wins us over by combining Eliza’s guileless street-toughness into alluring vulnerability.

Carpenter is a delight as he perfectly enunciates every word. Every sentence is layered with the weight of whatever heightened emotion the fervent Higgins is experiencing at the moment.

Clark is a solid center presence as Pickering, whom he plays with good-natured establishment solidity. Rounding out the Higgins household is Mrs. Pearce the housekeeper, performed as a woman of steady, common sense by Laura Giannarelli.

Also notable is Lynn Steinmetz’s turn as Mrs. Higgins, who we see here as the best of her societal strata. She’s comfortable with her station, but displays underlying humanity.

And Conrad Feininger adds grit as Alfred, Eliza’s hard-partying but self-aware father. These cast members form a potent onstage partnership, each one mining Shaw’s dialogue for all its worth and sparking extra energy from each other.

Shaw’s pointed observations about class and its contrivances are strikingly relevant 100 years after they were crafted. Alfred’s comments to Professor Higgins about his life sound as if they could be taken from a speech this year about a certain 47 percent of Americans. And that’s Shaw’s genius: sharp, incisive commentary and enduring characters, entertaining a century of grateful audiences.

If you go

Pygmalion continues through November 18, performed by Washington Stage Guild at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW, in Washington. Performances take place Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $50 Friday and Saturday evenings; $40 for all other performances. Patrons 65 and over receive a $10 discount at all performances. the Undercroft Theatre is fully accessible, and located on street level.

For tickets, information, or to discuss special needs, call the box office at (240) 582-0050 daily between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Tickets and information are also available online at www.stageguild.org.