In the midst of a rainy spring, the real sunshine can be found indoors, courtesy of Everyman Theatre’s fresh-as-a-daisy production of Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, directed with wit and relish by Eleanor Holdridge.
The show has such a sprightly, anything-is-possible spirit you find yourself applauding the scene changes, where a cadre of actors transform Daniel Ettinger’s elegantly flexible set into everything from a ballroom and sooty London railway station to Henry Higgins’ assertively masculine drawing room and study.
It’s a pip of a production, made even more so by Jenna Sokolowski’s remarkable performance as Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney guttersnipe transformed into a sublime purveyor of the Queen’s English under the brusque tutelage of speech specialist Henry Higgins (Kyle Prue). Miss Sokolowski gives Eliza a rakish charm, but also a strong backbone that makes the character seem modern and streamlined rather than a fanciful artifact from another era.
With her wide-awake face and comedienne’s physicality, Miss Sokolowski has the audience in the palm of her hand from her first “Ahhhhh-owwwww,” a sound much like hearing a herd of cats having their tails curled with a hot iron. Higgins, a phonetic purist, finds the noise coming out of her mouth nearly unendurable, but also admits to his fellow linguist and confirmed bachelor Colonel Pickering (a classy and compassionate Stan Weiman) “she’s so deliciously low.”
The comedic, dramatic and frankly, sexual, tension arises from Eliza’s bristling life force coming up against Higgins’ haughty sophistry. Mr. Prue plays Henry Higgins like he’s an early 20th century version of Gregory House from the TV series “House”–an arrogant jerk who treats people abominably, but so brilliant and striking somehow you forgive his behavior.
Pickering bets that Higgins cannot pass Eliza off as a duchess in six months and the pair industriously set off to work on their linguistic experiment, regarding her more like a fascinating specimen than a human being. Eliza chafes under Higgins’ callousness, but finds herself changed in ways far more profound than elocution. In the process of losing her accent, Eliza loses herself and her sense of independence. Higgins crows that he has liberated her, but in turning her into someone fit only to marry above her station, is she entering a rarified form of slavery? That Higgins finds himself drawn to her and dependent on her only adds to the dilemma of sex and class.
Mr. Shaw ponders these societal issues in a play that combines his customary gusts of speech with deft comedic commentary. In Pygmalion, the playwright appears to be having a field day with the lingua franca, having Higgins describe Eliza as “a squashed cabbage leaf” and “a presumptuous insect,” to a name a delectable few. Quips fall abundantly from the characters’ mouths, with Higgins noting “Have you ever met a man of good character where women are concerned?” and Alfred Doolittle (the delightful Wil Love) admitting that he has no morals because “I can’t afford them.”
Mr. Shaw is a man in love with his voice, and the discourses on class consciousness, morality and soul changes get a bit starchy after awhile, especially at the end of the second act when Higgins gets on his high horse one too many times. Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s opportunistic papa, outshines Higgins in oratorical persuasiveness when he hilariously holds forth on the perils of embracing middle class morality.
The talents of Mr. Prue, Miss Sokolowski and the rest of the cast – particularly Lynn Steinmetz as the no-nonsense, insightful housekeeper Mrs. Pearce and Helen Hedman as Higgins’ resolute mother – keep Mr. Shaw’s wordiness aloft and the pace never lags.
Everyman’s production of Pygmalion captures the best of both worlds, taking us to a bygone era of gloves, tipped hats and tea parties where the word “bloody” was akin to dropping the f-bomb in church while making strikingly relevant statements about how language defines and confines us.
by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running Time: Approximately 2:20 with one 10-minute intermission