NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – Over the Shaw Festival’s 53 seasons, the company’s dramaturges – theater researchers, archivists, historians – have scoured museum niches, dustbins, cardboard boxes and forgotten files, seeking plays by neglected playwrights. Their mission: Find plays from long ago that would complement the works of George Bernard Shaw, the festival’s namesake. A painstaking job but a labor of love.
The staff did well. Back in the day, run amok farceur Ben Travers was found, and little-known writers – at least in North America – such as Harley Granville-Barker, St John Hankin and Harold Brighouse resurfaced, and unappreciated stage stories by Somerset Maugham and Sir Noel Coward were read in a new light. Complementary, indeed.
Perhaps the most important discovery was British novelist, playwright and radio commentator J.B. Priestley, one of the important literary figures of the post-Edwardian era, particularly the 1930s. Several of Priestley’s plays have been produced at the Shaw fest in recent years, notably “Dangerous Corner,” “Time and the Conway’s,” “An Inspector Calls” (twice) and a delightfully silly “When We Are Married,” subtitled “A Yorkshire farcical comedy,” also twice, the first dates in 1990 and just now in reprisal.
Joseph Ziegler has returned to direct this clever and wise, satirical little piece, one that features an outstanding ensemble. Priestley was famed for his character development and his story construction and Ziegler is on top of both of these things. He lets the tale unfold at a brisk, foolishly funny pace, and the situations never seem dated even though the frantic events take place over the course of one September evening in 1908. Keen work.
The premise is irresistible. It’s the small town of Clecklewyke, Yorkshire. It’s an occasion. Three couples, married on the same day 25 years ago, are celebrating their silver anniversary together. Champagne toasts. Lots of memories and remember whens.
But … wait a minute. Quite by accident, Alderman Joseph Helliwell and pals Albert Parker and Herbert Soppitt learn that those nuptials long ago were illegal – the presiding parson forgot to sign the paperwork – and the untimely business has just been learned.
What will they tell the wives? What will they tell people in the town, where the men are big fish in a small pond and where they call the shots “at Chapel?” And to complicate things, Helliwell’s cook, nosy old Mrs. Northrop, has overheard the news and can’t wait to blab it about. A photographer shows up to record but ends up offering pithy advice and saving grace. Oh, and there’s an opportunistic floozy who has heard of the developing “scandal.” She, er, knows the men, somehow … from somewhere.
The wives, long-suffering, bored, subservient, affection-starved and unhappy with a charade lifestyle, ponder what such “a clerical error” could mean to their lives. The women in “When We Are Married” best represent Priestley’s preoccupation with time as they contemplate the past, the passage of the years, the future, the if-only and the maybe.
So, happily ever after? Even a great storyteller like Priestley isn’t sure.
“When We Are Married” is a nearly perfect bit of theater but for some ear-testing country dialect by the impertinent, sassy, scene-stealing maid, Ruby – wonderfully played by Jennifer Dzialoszynski – and veteran Mary Haney, as Mrs. Northrop. Their cunning commentary, broadly delivered, with some apparently zinging one-liners, is as thick as Yorkshire’s famous pudding.
Thom Marriott, Claire Jullien, Patrick McManus, Patrick Galligan, Kate Hennig and Catherine McGregor – the married couples – are faultless. Peter Krantz, as photographer Henry, is stellar, and Fiona Byrne, as earthy opportunist Lottie Grady, is fun to watch and gives a memorable lesson on how to enter a room and take it over. Terrific.
What: “When We Are Married”
Where: Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
When: Through Oct. 26
Info: (800) 511-7429, www.shawfest.com