Shaw’s “Pygmalion” Features Battles of Gender and Class In Powerful, Captivating Princeton Summer Theater Production
There are reasons why Pygmalion has been the most popular and most famous of George Bernard Shaw’s plays. More than 100 years after its 1914 London premiere those reasons ring out loudly and clearly in Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) striking production.
Shaw’s fiery, intelligent language, his rich sense of comedy and his irreverent and searing social commentary all sparkle in this play, and the top-flight PST ensemble of eight with a polished professional production crew under the direction of R.N. Sandberg make the most of this brilliant text.
Though much of its fame and familiarity can be attributed to My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s 1956 musical adaptation (You might find yourself humming two or three of the tunes as you watch this play.), Pygmalion itself offers abundant riches for both mind and heart. It’s funny, fascinating, and highly entertaining, as Mr. Sandberg and his talented troupe boldly demonstrate. The performances here are consistently in character and credible, and the characters — from Cockney Covent Garden to aristocratic Wimpole Street — come to life with appropriately detailed idiosyncrasies and memorable force.
Set in Edwardian London, the play focuses on the distinguished phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Jake Robertson) and the working class flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Bits Sola), who, because of a bet that he can in six months pass her off as a high society duchess, becomes his pupil. The title “Pygmalion” refers to the Greek myth of the sculptor who falls in love with his creation, but here the conflict goes beyond issues of artist and his creation or teacher and student to become a battle of the sexes and a sharp social conflict. Class differences, of course, are most blatantly delineated by individuals’ manner of speech.
Mr. Sandberg, himself a playwright and Princeton University lecturer in theater and English, has adapted and “framed” the play — and deftly cut it to just over two hours — to zero in on the psycho/socio-drama of Higgins’s and Eliza’s relationship. Pygmalion, particularly that relationship between Higgins and Eliza, has been controversial since its inception, another factor enhancing the play’s fame and popularity. Original audiences, and many audiences since, wanted a romantic ending. The producer and director of the 1938 Pygmalion movie embraced Shaw’s Academy Award-winning screenplay, but invented their own ending. My Fair Lady also chose the romanticized conclusion, rejecting Shaw’s resolution to the Higgins-Eliza relationship, despite his 14-page explanation at the end of the text of exactly how and why the story should end more realistically than romantically.
Despite a number of cuts, Mr. Sandberg keeps the essentials of Shaw’s original script, including the ending. Mr. Sandberg’s “framing device” emphasizes Higgins’s mental struggles as he reflects on his relationship with Eliza — first in a shadowy two-minute opening scene in which Eliza repeats over and over “I’m a good girl,” then in brief interludes between scenes where Higgins reflects with adoration and frustration on a flower given him by Eliza, and finally in a brief, enigmatic postscript with Eliza and Higgins both onstage but scarcely interacting. Mr. Sandberg’s adaptation is intriguing and mostly convincing, but certainly controversial for Shavian purists who might well object to a certain romanticizing of Higgins, who, at least in his private interludes here, seems truly smitten with Eliza. Ambiguity, mixed emotions, even conflicted characterizations, however, all provide rich fodder for the ongoing discussion and controversy that has been a concomitant of this play throughout its history on stage.
Jeffrey Van Velsor’s elegant set, with realistic well-appointed sitting room areas on far stage right and far stage left but the major part of the stage filled with six large white classic busts on pedestals and no fewer than twenty-one frames of various sizes hanging at different levels, contributes to the ambiguity and symbolic resonance here, perhaps emphasizing the allusion to the Pygmalion myth, with reminders of the artist’s creations and the empty frames within which individuals must independently create themselves. Alex Mannix’s lighting design and excellent, elaborately detailed period costumes by Keating Helfrich and Wesley Cornwell assist in constructing the stylish world of the play.
Mr. Robertson, a high-energy, articulate, suave and witty Higgins, appropriately arrogant, rude and bullying, but mostly likeable for all that, and Ms. Sola, charming, outspoken, adept with her changing accents, strong and sympathetic in her battles to maintain her individuality and integrity against the sexism and class discriminations of her environment, lead the PST cast, made up mostly of recent Princeton University graduates.
Maeve Brady’s Mrs. Higgins, mother of Henry, is a masterpiece of characterization, despite the two-generation stretch in age. Ms. Brady takes advantage of Shaw’s brilliant dialogue to establish this formidable matriarch as Eliza’s greatest ally in her travails with the “infinitely stupid male creatures” she must contend with here. “Oh, men! men! men!” Mrs. Higgins fumes.
Evan Thompson is an adept and articulate Alfred Doolittle, father of Eliza and happily self-described as one of the “undeserving poor.” The character, pronounced by Higgins to be “the most original moralist in England,” serves admirably as one of Shaw’s finest satiric voices. Ross Baron’s Colonel Pickering is a suitable sidekick for Higgins, contrasting with the irascible professor in his respectful treatment of Eliza, who recognizes that “the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated.”
Caroline Hertz as Higgins’s housekeeper and as Miss Eynsford Hill, Kanoa Mulling as Freddy Eynsford Hill and Sarah Cuneo as their mother all provide credible and colorful characterizations in supporting roles.
Pygmalion definitely demands an audience ready to listen with sustained attention, but Messrs. Shaw and Sandberg and the spirited cast and crew of Princeton Summer Theater deliver an entertaining show that evokes loud laughter, keen interest, and considerable thought, discussion, and debate.
“Pygmalion” runs for one more weekend, July 16-19, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. For tickets and information call (732) 997-0205 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org.