Black People’s Houses might be this play’s title if it were a play written today and set in DC. That title would probably give a better sense of how provocative and satirical it is. Concerned, as it is, with slum landlords and gentrification, it is much more relevant and sharp than the creaky word “widower” suggests.
The houses of the title are the tenements rented by the poor in several of London’s working-class districts. They are owned by the widower Sartorius (Lawrence Redmond), whose daughter Blanche (Madeleine Farrington) falls for young Harry Trench (Scott Harrison) in the play’s first act. As Trench learns of the origins of the dowry that will come with a marriage to Blanche, he finds his morals pitted against his romance.
Race does not play into the social politics in George Bernard Shaw’s late-19th century London (as far as his characters are aware). But the poor of that London were in roughly the same position as many of the black residents of our own city are today, when property values rise and condo builders come calling.
Yet, there are no bad guys in the play, as is characteristic of much of Shaw’s work. This is not a tale of Evil Developers and the Noble Progressives who stand up to them. We discover that everyone, even independent-minded Blanche and idealistic Harry, makes their own justifications for their part in the system and the rewards they get for it.
And in this presentation – if I may presume a little bit about most of my readers, that most of you would prefer to place yourselves in the Noble Progressives category – we are indicted as well. Whether the satirical knife is blunted by the distance of a century and the quaintness of Victorian-era speech, or whether it is sharpened by the realization of how little has changed in so many years, is a matter of personal response.
What’s not debatable is that Washington Stage Guild knows how to handle the work of their preferred playwright. As bitter as this “Play Unpleasant” (Shaw’s designation) can be, and as dense as the arguments are, the touch is light under Laura Giannarelli’s direction. Michael Glenn as Henry’s mentor/friend Cokane gets the humor engine going in the very first moment, adding another hilariously pompous ass to his impressive resumé of such characters.
As the light romantic comedy of the first act gives way to the darker explorations of the second and third, Glenn’s character takes on additional dimensions, as does every other character. The performers excel in making their characters likable and human without sacrificing a morsel of their moral distastefulness. This includes Steven Carpenter and Paige O’Malley as the play’s representatives of the lower class, who neither play awful stereotypes nor pitiable saints. O’Malley somehow even manages to take a three-line role as a waitress and make a full person out of it, turning a functional background role into another facet of the play’s moral universe.
closes October 22, 2017
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The set design of the other widower’s house of the title (Sartorius’ own mansion) adds to this richness, its bookshelf-and-window paintings quite charming on the surface yet subtly messing with our depth perception. (Set design by Carl F. Gudenius and Kirk Kristlibas.)
Every company that puts on a ‘classic’ play by a dead white man wants to trumpet “relevance” in order to entice us to come see it. Sometimes such claims are a stretch; but sometimes that play is, like Widowers’ Houses, truly, shockingly relevant. It is a sly gut-punch of a story, fermented for a hundred years, delivered on a silky pillow of stuffy British manners.
Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw . Directed by Laura Giannarelli . Featuring Steven Carpenter, Madeleine Farrington, Michael Glenn, Scott Harrison, Paige O’Malley, Lawrence Redmond . Scenic Design: Carl F. Gudenius and Kirk Kristlibas . Costume Design: Sigrid Johannesdottir . Sound Design: Marcus Darnley . Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows . Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie . Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.