Chances are you’ve never heard of playwright St. John Emile Clavering Hankin or his Edwardian comedy of manners “The Charity that Began at Home.”
And why should you have? It’s a nearly forgotten, intermittently clever curiosity from the early 20th century that lampoons rich folks’ warped ideas of philanthropy. There are funnier send-ups of the era’s bubble-dwelling aristocrats by Noël Coward, more intellectually satisfying ones by George Bernard Shaw and more stylish ones by W. Somerset Maugham.
But leave it to the Shaw Festival to breathe new life into this dusty, fusty piece of theater from a distant age. The show is running in the Court House Theatre through Oct. 11 in a satisfying production directed by former festival director Christopher Newton.
Newton, a theatrical archaeologist of sorts who previously dug up Hankin’s “Return of the Prodigal” in 2001 and 2002 and “The Cassilis Engagement” in 2007, proves himself up to the challenges of this piece.
The play’s premise is as bizarre as it is compelling.
Lady Denison and her daughter Margery (Fiona Reid and Julia Course) are inexplicably in the thrall of a smarmy, populist preacher played by Graeme Somerville. Among other altruistic ideals, their shared philosophy requires them to be exceedingly kind to people they don’t like. According to that precept, they invited a group of difficult characters to their country house for a long holiday. Out of this volatile recipe, as astute readers may have guessed, disaster emerges.
The highlight of the play isn’t its story, which is contrived and weak in spots, but its unforgettable characters.
Into set designer William Schmuck’s gorgeous Edwardian drawing room enter a series of unfortunate characters, each more annoying than the last. There’s the frumpy Mrs. Horrocks (Donna Belleville), the gruff and implacable governess Miss Triggs (Sharry Flett) and the terminally boring General Bonsor (Jim Mezon), whose endless stories in search of a point push the charitable intentions of his hosts to the breaking point.
There are no weak links in the cast, but Mezon’s performance stands out for its frenetic energy and spot-on embodiment of the blowhard buzzkill we’ve all learned to slowly back away from at parties. Even when he’s not speaking, Mezon nervously bounces his leg and takes short breaths, waiting impatiently for a spot to interject his rambling thoughts into the conversation. As Miss Triggs, Flett is marvelously insufferable, waiting to explode at the smallest perceived slight. And as the snarky Mrs. Eversleigh, who doesn’t have time for charity and finds every last person detestable, Laurie Paton turns in a cutting and hilarious performance.
At one point, a creaky love affair develops between Margery and another house guest that gets to the heart of Hankin’s point about the limits of charity and the difficulty of maintaining idealism against one’s self-interest. If that tactic comes off as a little heavy-handed, it’s offset by the lighthearted way in which Newton lets his actors deliver it.
Newton’s production succeeds by letting its actors sink their teeth into Hankin’s juicy characters and turn them from dated period pieces into recognizable archetypes, thereby allowing the play to resonate loudly with modern audiences. A different approach might have sentenced Hankin’s play to further obscurity, but this one seems likely to give it a meaningful second life.
What: “The Charity that Began at Home”
When: Through Oct. 11
Where: Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Tickets: $35 to $113
Info: (800) 511-7429 or www.shawfest.com