Paxton Whitehead, left, as Colonel Pickering and Robert Sean Leonard as Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion,’ at
Paxton Whitehead, left, as Colonel Pickering and Robert Sean Leonard as Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion,’ at Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage through July 27. (Photo by Henry DiRocco / Courtesy Old Globe Theater)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Happy ending? Those are fighting words.

Most people know the story of "Pygmalion" only from "My Fair Lady," the Broadway musical adapted from that play, asserts Nicholas Martin, director of a new production of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage through July 27.

In Shaw's play, Henry Higgins, a linguistics professor, offers a wager that he can change the crude accent of an impoverished flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, and pass her off in society as a proper English lady. He succeeds.

In their 1956 musical, Lerner & Loewe suggest at the end that Higgins and Eliza, constantly at loggerheads during their contentious linguistic lessons, somehow will get together
permanently.

But this decidedly was not the scenario that Shaw had in mind when he wrote "Pygmalion." From its initial production in 1913, and later for film, the playwright fiercely battled those who wanted happy endings.

Clearly, Martin is pleased to be returning to the festival, which he directed from 2008 to 2010, and to be involved once more with "Pygmalion," repeating a triumph earlier this year, in January, at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

Martin brought along his Old Globe Henry Higgins, Robert Sean Leonard. "He was most instrumental in my wanting to do the show," confided Martin, who mentioned Leonard's long list of stage roles, as well as his eight seasons as Dr. James Miller on the hit television series, "House, M.D."

"He's a real stage creature," said Martin, deeming Leonard the ideal Henry Higgins.

"It's hard to find a Henry Higgins who has the skill and articulation and the rapid mind that accompanies those things, yet who also has the charm and vulnerability that will make you not hate Henry Higgins, because you should not hate Henry Higgins.

"The other reason I'm excited about this production is a young actress named Heather Lind who is really a remarkable discovery," said Martin of his Eliza Doolittle. "She's one of those rare actresses who's got everything -- intelligence, sex appeal. It's thrilling to watch these two actors together -- quite electric; they have real chemistry."

"My entire life has prepared me for Eliza Doolittle," mused Lind in a separate interview.

A graduate of N.Y.U., Lind, who appeared last summer in Lucy Boyle's "The Deep Blue" at Williamstown, lists among her credits the Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park productions "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Winter's Tale."

"The N.Y.U. training really prepared me in all practical, ways -- speech work, dialect work, body work; it opened me up to what a huge task this is, and working with Shakespeare I gained a respect for the language, which I think Shaw was all about."

Eliza's is Lind's first Cockney accent. "I worked with a dialect coach, Deborah Hecht, an excellent teacher I had at N.Y.U. We met several times before rehearsals began, to find where the placement is, to find the sounds."

Eliza has a tendency to push her voice: "It's written into the script that she utters really ugly, irritable sounds. That means warming up, doing exercises to make the voice flexible and healthy." Lind agrees that Eliza requires the regimen of an opera singer.

Leonard's impressive list of Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional roles include his portrayal of A.E. Housman in Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love," for which he received a Tony Award, and his Edmund Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and Eugene Marchbanks in Shaw's "Candida," both accorded Tony nominations.

"This was quite a switch for him, but one that he eagerly embraced," said Martin.

Leonard said after ridding himself of the southern accent he'd acquired for his recent London role as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and working with Hecht, he believes the role of Henry Higgins is a natural for him.

"Henry Higgins is obsessed with a lot of things ," Leonard said in a separate interview. "He loves language, the history of language, but he's never grown up. Eliza's more grown up then he. She's more a full human being; he never learns it, but the audience knows.

"Girls are more mature than boys -- look at Juliet. Girls are clever, I don't know whether we [men] ever catch up. My wife's more grown up, more human."

Although Higgins shouldn't be hated, as Martin stressed earlier, "he still has to be slightly punished. He mustn't get away with his treatment of Eliza," added Martin, recalling an earlier production of the show in which he included the wedding of Eliza and Freddy Hill, her chief admirer.

"But now I give Higgins a moment when he thinks of [he and Eliza] married, [with] nostalgia, if not regret.

"I think this is what Shaw wanted -- not necessarily [a] wedding, but we have the knowledge that Eliza and Henry do not get together. It would have been impossible for that marriage to work -- she and he."

On stage

What: "Pygmalion" by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Nicholas Martin

Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival

When: Tonight throiugh July 27. Eves.: Tue.-Thu. 7:30; Fri., Sat. 8. Mats.: Thu., Sun. 2; Sat. 3:30

Tickets: $60

How: (413) 597-3400; wtfestival.org