Chicago Theatre Review
A Flower Girl Blooms Into a Lady
Pygmalion – Remy Bumppo
Known by most audiences as the play that inspired both the 1956 musical, “My Fair Lady,” as well as the 1964 film version, George Bernard Shaw’s most popular comedy debuted back in 1913. Over a hundred years later, it’s still a very relevant and entertaining comedy. The play speaks to how a person is generally perceived by the way he acts and speaks. At a time when women’s suffrage was just emerging in England, Shaw wrote a romantic story that also exposed women’s rights in English society.
In the ancient Greek myth, which inspired Shaw, Pygmalion was a sculptor who didn’t really care much for women. One day he carved a beautiful woman out of ivory and the sculptor fell in love with his work. At the Festival of Aphrodite, while making an offering to the goddess of love, Pygmalion whispered how he’d be thankful and overjoyed to have a bride like his ivory lady. When he returned home, Aphrodite had granted his wish and his statue came to life.
In Shaw’s play, Henry Higgins is a renowned professor of phonetics. One evening he observes Eliza Doolittle, a common flower girl selling her wares under the portico of London’s St. Paul’s Church. Higgins tells Colonel Pickering, a learned gentleman who shares his interest in phonetics, that, by teaching this bedraggled Cockney girl how to speak proper English, he could, like Pygmalion, mold her into a proper lady. He makes a bet that he’d even be able to pass her off in society as a duchess. When Eliza unexpectedly shows up at Higgins’ doorstep the following day, Pickering accepts the bet. Against her better judgment, Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ authoritarian housekeeper, played with gruff maternal care by Laurie Larson, takes Eliza under her wing. However, she challenges her boss about what’s to happen to Eliza once the experiment is completed. Higgins dismisses this problem as unimportant and Miss Doolittle’s education begins.
In Shawn Douglass’ unique interpretation of this Shavian classic, the production is performed in the round, with audiences seated all around the playing area. The stage becomes an arena for Shaw’s battle of wits and words. Douglass has also creatively framed his production with short, mostly unspoken scenes, set thirty years from when the actual play takes place, that introduce each act. In these well-orchestrated vignettes, a middle-aged Elizabeth Doolittle, played with quiet dignity by Jane deLaubenfels, returns to Higgins’ study to pay her respects to her deceased teacher. We can only surmise what Eliza’s future has become since her six months of language lessons. Did she return to live with Higgins, perhaps working as his assistant? Did Eliza join one of Higgins’ phonetic competitors or begin her own school of language? Did she marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill? In this memory play, Elizabeth recalls the events that brought her to where she is today. She inspires each new scene with a discovery of various momentos from the past: her old straw flower girl hat, the recorded cylinders of her Cockney accent, a ring Higgins gave her. The framing device is a brilliant way to inform audiences that this play is truly Eliza Doolittle’s story and her personal journey.
In addition to adding his own artistic touches to this wonderful play, Douglass has led his talented cast with assurance and sensitivity. Chicago’s leading language coach, Eva Breneman, has guided this company toward exquisite dialect and diction. Mastering both Cockney and upper class English, Kelsey Brennan is wonderful as Eliza. She makes her character’s odyssey, from lowly flower girl to regal lady of society, an empathetic voyage of learning. We watch Eliza’s steady development, not only in her speech, but in her subtly changing posture, body language and attitude, while creating a strong, smart young woman who is, in every way, the equal of her instructor.
As Henry Higgins, Artistic Director Nick Sandys was born to play this role. He’s absolutely brilliant. English-born Sandys seems so comfortable in the tweeds of the misogynistic Professor, it’s no wonder that he’s played the role many times, including portraying Higgins in Light Opera Works’ recent production of “My Fair Lady.” Through his portrayal, audiences will see a man who’s used to always having his own way, who looks down on others and enjoys manipulating those around him, especially women, as if they were toys. The lesson he learns by the end of this play leaves him dumbfounded. While he’s always viewed females as his inferiors, Higgins’ respect for women begins and ends with his smart, influential mother, Mrs. Higgins. She’s played to perfection here by the always remarkable Annabel Armour. This actress easily wears the title as the dominating force in Henry’s life and she goes from becoming Eliza’s stiffest critic to her mentor, friend and champion by the play’s end.
Wonderful character actor, David Darlow is very funny and superb as Eliza’s blue collar father, Alfred P. Doolittle. His character’s philosophy of life, as a member of “the undeserving poor,” makes the common dustman a fascinating fellow in Higgins’ eyes. With his eccentric view of life and a natural intelligence, untamed by education, the Professor takes a quirky liking to him and jokingly recommends Doolittle to a rich American as a champion of moral reform. Alfred’s ultimate transformation, while subtle, is rich and layered in Darlow’s capable hands. As Higgins’ new friend and peer, Peter A. Davis is excellent as the gentlemanly Colonel Pickering. He offers a distinguished sounding board for the Professor, while lending courteous support to Eliza. As the Enysford-Hills, Kyle Curry makes his Remy Bumppo debut as Freddy, the young social climber who finds Eliza irresistible. Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, the young man’s mother, is played with elegance and a degree of haughtiness by Joanna Riopelle, while Clara, Freddy’s annoyingly snooty sister, is played with relish by Eliza Helm. The cast also includes Vahishta Vafadari, Sean Foer and Brian McKnight in various supporting roles.
In one of theatre’s earliest attempts to portray liberated women taking a stand and becoming their own person, George Bernard Shaw created a magnificent battle between the sexes and social classes in this play. He’s peppered his comedy liberally with wit and wicked word-play. And, since this genius playwright has crafted such remarkably realistic individuals, a talented cast, such as this, has a field day portraying them. Under Shawn Douglass’ expert direction, with a deceptively simple scenic design by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, actors cloaked in gorgeous Edwardian fashions by Kristy Leigh Hall and the whole thing beautifully lit by Andrew Meyers, audiences will be charmed by the transformation of the flower girl who blooms into a lady. And, with this director’s masterful strokes of creativity, we also see that lady become a proud, accomplished woman, as well.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 28-January 8 by Remy Bumppo at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.RemyBumppo.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinreview.com.