You know the basics. Renowned phoneticist Henry Higgins makes a project of Eliza Doolittle: to transform a common cockney flower girl into a proper lllla-dy by dint of his power to shape her speech and manners. You probably got it through My Fair Lady, with the rain in Spain falling mainly on the plain and all that.
Pygmalion is not My Fair Lady, and all praise to George Bernard Shaw for that. Shaw’s magnum opus, a triumph of craft and cleverness, isn’t so cutesy. It’s skillfully structured, pithy without pretentiousness, and as funny and witty as Oscar Wilde on his best day. And that’s without getting into considerations of how progressive, how feminist and humanist it is not just for 1912, but any age.
I’m as surprised as you are. I read Pygmalion and saw the 1938 film version sometime in my early 20s and came away unmarked. Sure, great idea. And I processed most all the questions of identity and independence, connection and responsibility, caste and dignity. (Shaw is not shy about directly stating his ideas, even if he manages to embed that explicitness so he stops just short of being too on the nose.) But I wasn’t ready to feel that frisson you get from a writer pushing all the right levers in the right sequence.
Seeing Pygmalion today as its being performed at the Long Beach Playhouse was the perfect way to appreciate the masterpiece I’d missed. That’s another surprise for me. Over the years Long Beach Playhouse has not tended to choose scripts I love, nor come at them philosophically in ways that appeals to me. This has been especially true of mainstage shows. (My two clear favorites—Machinal and Cloud Tectonics—were presented upstairs.) But the Playhouse peeps picked the perfect show for their predominant sensibility (call it “projecting to the back row”); they assembled a cast without a weak link in even the smallest roles; they don’t skimp on attention to detail; and they have a clear understanding of the characters’ and Shaw’s motivations.
You can’t create a piece of theatre that wins on all counts if you don’t have a great director, so Sarah Butts can do nothing good for the rest of her life and still die knowing that, for at least one moment, she was great—although considering that she’s a third-year MFA student, she’s likely to die with additional greatness under her belt. [I guess I’m talking about greatness that comes with a belt clip?] Unlike film, theatre is not what one would call a “director’s medium,” so more often than not great direction consists primarily in truly understanding the text and ensuring your actors get it, too, then putting them in the best possible position (physically and otherwise) to succeed with that understanding. This is doubly true when directing someone like Shaw. Pygmalion takes place mostly in drawing rooms, and what happens happens sans flash (except linguistically). It’s little more than people talking to each other. But the people we see on the Playhouse mainstage hear one another, and they feel impacts from the words. They speak sometimes directly, sometimes behind veils, sometimes behind veils meant to be seen through. They are by turns oblivious and self-conscious, callous and sensitive, angry and wounded, sardonic and sincere. And we get to savor every bit of it.
Butts deserves plenty of credit—not just for this, but for little details like the well-timed incorporation of a metronome—but it helps if you cook with the right food. You’re pretty tired of my praising Shaw right about now, so let’s talk actors…after I praise Shaw a bit more. Sure, Henry and Eliza are the central roles, but Shaw manages to humanize the minor characters, giving them both idiosyncrasy and moments in which they—and the actors embodying them—have chances to shine. Moreover, each interpersonal relationship, no matter how little stage time it gets, is unique. Henry’s relationship with his mother and with Col. Pickering is no less real than his relationship with Eliza, just as her relationships with Pickering and her father are of similarly authentic stuff.
There’s no denying, of course, that Henry and Eliza are (along with Shaw’s philosophical considerations) front and center in the Pygmalion universe. If those roles are not cast right, your Pygmalion sucks. But Wilhelm Peters and Tiffany Toner give performances that you appreciate increasingly as the play progresses. Part of that is Shaw’s structuring. Scene 1 is pure set-up, introducing the main characters and planting the seed for Henry’s Eliza project without tipping the playwright’s humanistic hand. It’s Scene 2, where Henry and Pickering talk shop before receiving Eliza and embarking upon their adventure in character formation, that the roles really take flight. Peters is all fidgeting intellect and ego, while Toner personifies inherent human dignity and untapped potential even when delivering the silliest (in a good way) moments. Both manage to deadpan Shaw’s stylized dialog, which is key to selling all it has to offer. As Henry and Eliza grow (Eliza steadily, Henry in a bit of a zigzag), Peters and Toner seem to grow with them.
Scene 3, where Henry and Pickering (a proper avuncular rock of kindness as portrayed by Steven Biggs) test-drive their Eliza project in front of Henry’s mum (Susie McCarthy, understatedly strong enough to have shaped a force of nature like Henry and keep him in his place) and company, is a tour de force for Toner. Both character and actor hold court here, enrapturing their respective audiences on different levels. Toner makes Eliza’s oscillation between her cockney origins and her newly acquired bourgeois manners sound completely natural, and her movements across the stage are all commanding charm.
The set design for Pygmalion is both gorgeous and a model of maximal functionality, allowing Butts and company to utilize the unusually long stage space of the Playhouse’s mainstage theater to maximum effect. Martha Carter’s lighting design makes the most of that staging. You’re not going to get to do much with lighting on a traditional telling of Pygmalion, yet Carter’s simple work on the opening scene, which takes place under an arcade on a rainy London night, allows for an effective reveal of the full set in Scene 2.
Also worthy of note is Donna Fritsche’s costumery, which holds its own with what you’ll see if Ang Lee ever produces a film adaptation. Fritsche does make one error, though: Scene 1 contains two explicit references to Henry’s boots, although clearly he is shod in the dress shoes he wears for the duration.
I mention that mostly because I feel compelled to say something critical about this show. That’s all I got, kids. Pygmalion is about as perfect a production as you’ll see. Maybe you won’t like the script, but there’s little you can say against how Long Beach Playhouse delivers it. So give Shaw a(nother) chance, because Pygmalion is one of those rare conflations of humor (both high and low) with poignancy, appealing to brain, heart, soul, and funny bone.
PYGMALION LONG BEACH PLAYHOUSE • 5021 E ANAHEIM ST • LONG BEACH 90804 • 562.494.1014 LBPLAYHOUSE.ORG • FRI-SAT 8PM, SUN 2PM • $14–$24 • THROUGH MARCH 26
(Photo: Michael Hardy Photography)