Monday, August 25, 2014

Discovery: The Charity That Began at Home

Fiona Reid, Jim Mezon and Laurie Paton in The Charity That Began at Home (Photo: David Cooper / Shaw Festival)

For theatre aficionados, one of the ongoing pleasures of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario is its commitment to unearthing forgotten plays by Shaw’s contemporaries. This year the festival offered two: J.B. Priestley’s When We Are Married (1937) and The Charity That Began at Home (1906) by St. John Hankin, who was associated (like Shaw) with the Royal Court Theatre and wrote five plays before committing suicide at the age of thirty-nine. (The Shaw has mounted two of the others, The Return of the Prodigal and The Cassilis Engagement.) Though Joseph Ziegler’s production of When We Are Married is skillfully mounted and performed, Priestley’s farcical satire of middle-class English morality – about three couples who learn, at the celebration of their mutual twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, that they were never legally married – is awfully thin stuff. But The Charity That Began at Home turns out to be the revelation of the season.

Hankin’s play is a comedy with distinctly Shavian overtones – that is to say, Shavian reversals. Subtitled A Comedy for Philanthropists, it takes place over the course of two weeks at the country house of Lady Denison (Fiona Reid) and her daughter Margery (Julia Course), who both subscribe to the ethical humanism of a self-ordained minister named Basil Hylton (Graeme Somerville). Hylton’s doctrine consists of opening one’s life and home to those who, for one reason or another, have fallen through society’s cracks. So the Denisons play hostess to a collection of misfits whom no other respectable house would welcome, including General Bonsor (Jim Mezon), a windy narcissist; Mrs. Horrocks (Donna Belleville), a haughty, unpleasant widow; and Miss Triggs (Sharry Flett), a tyrannical, self-pitying governess whom Lady Denison enlists to teach her German grammar in order to keep her occupied. (The experiment is a disaster: when a domestic emergency delays one of their lessons, Miss Triggs retires in a state of near-hysteria.) Inevitably, the guests learn that they won invitations to the Denison household because of their shortcomings and are outraged and insulted, but the generosity of mother and daughter to the less fortunate has more serious consequences. The manservant (Andrew Bunker) Lady Denison engaged because his bad behavior has already cost him one position impregnates one of the maids (Darcy Gerhart). And Margery becomes engaged to the only guest with any charm, Hugh Verreker (Martin Happer), an ex-soldier who was cashiered out of the service after a scandal.

Fiona Reid and Julia Course (Photo: David Cooper/Shaw Festival)
The other playwright who may come to mind as you watch The Charity That Began at Home is Molière, whose comedies of manners are premised on what you might call the voice of social reasonableness – the conviction that people who have to live in the world commit a capital folly if they carry a moral or religious principle too far. I'm thinking particularly of The Misanthrope, which treats the main character’s strict aversion to any kind of dishonesty – even the benign flattery that enables us to interact with our neighbors without hurting their feelings – as a form of fanaticism that sets him against everyone else. (Perspicacious and eminently trustworthy as a social observer, Molière is careful to offer an opposite number for his protagonist: the woman he loves despite himself, who is not merely a flatterer of the everyday variety but a true hypocrite.) The tangles in which the perpetually anxious Lady Denison and her sweet but naïve daughter find themselves are a source of delight for the audience. And in Christopher Newton’s elegantly directed production, the superb, comically precise ensemble, which also boasts Laurie Paton as Lady Denison’s naysaying sister and Neil Barclay in an underwritten role as another of the visitors, a Mr. Firket, the actors make Hankin’s dialogue shimmer and his absurd situations ricochet. Reid, who has the Billie Burke part, is especially funny.

When General Bonsor learns that his company was sought for this rural retreat not because of his wit but because he’s a tiresome bore, in this production, left alone in the drawing room, he looks at his reflection in the mirror over the mantle with amazement, as if he saw himself for the first time as others see him. The moment is Chekhovian (and Mezon carries it off beautifully), and it’s a surprise – one that I assumed was completely the invention of the director. It turns out that I was only half right: after the general’s exclamation, “Boring!,” the script calls for “a pause while we realize that one of the most tragic things in life is to be a bore – and to know it.” The fourth act turns out to be even more of a surprise. Hankin’s point appears to be that Hylton’s resolve – that treating the unlucky (i.e., the severely flawed) as they desire to be treated will convert them – is ridiculous. Yet Verreker, a devil-may-care bachelor whose only complaint of Margery is that she has no vices, not even the slightest impulse towards mischief, sacrifices his own wishes at the end in an act that suggests that, ironically, Hylton’s argument has worked on him. The tones are wildly different, of course, and I don’t mean to elevate Hankin’s play to the status of the late masterpieces of Eugene O’Neill, but this particular reversal made me think of Larry Slade’s musing at the end of The Iceman Cometh that he’s the one true convert the play’s iceman of death, Hickey, made during his visit to the hopeless denizens of Harry Hope’s bar. Both conversions have the effect of complicating the dramatic landscape. The fourth act of The Charity That Began at Home turns on Happer’s subtle performance, which is the one that really resonates as you leave the theatre.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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