In Williamstown Theatre Festival's 'Pygmalion,' Higgins plays while Eliza sulks
WILLIAMSTOWN -- Charming; playful; boyish; puckish -- personality traits not customarily applied to Professor Henry Higgins, the single-purposed linguist with an obsessive passion for his work who stands at the center of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." As it happens. those qualities are in sublime abundance on the Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage, where Robert Sean Leonard appears to be having the time of his life -- and ours as well -- in a generally sparkling revival of Shaw's 1913 comedy.
That Leonard makes those qualities work within the framework of a man who remains steadfast in his bachelorhood, his sense of entitlement and expectation and the demands he places on everyone around him is emblematic not only of Leonard's command of his craft but also a production that sails along merrily and, for the most part, successfully despite a presumptuous directorly turn at the end and a curiously crafted performance opposite Leonard -- Heather Lind's Eliza Doolittle -- that has little connection with anything going on around her, as if she's accidentally wandered onto WTF's Main Stage from some other play rehearsing next door.
Lind struggles to find Eliza's heart, her soul, her spine but the connections, when they are made at all, are forced and unconvincing. Lind's Eliza's climactic showdown with Higgins is little little more than a temper tantrum by a petulant creature who, despite her newly acquired upscale clothing and manner, is not that far removed from her rough, raw working-class origins. She delivers her last line to Higgins with apologetic timidity rather than assertive finality -- not at all the Eliza Doolittle Shaw had in mind.
Fortunately, director Nicholas Martin has surrounded Lind with a first-rate ensemble whose particular joys, in addition to Leonard, include Paxton Whitehead's patrician Colonel Pickering, Higgins' valued colleague; Maureen Anderman as Higgins' mother, a graceful classy woman who will not suffer fools gladly, especially if they are her son; Caitlin O'Connell, who brings a delicious hint of Irish spirit and feistiness to the role of Higgins' housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce; and Don Lee Sparks in an absolutely terrific turn as Eliza's dustman father, a performance that slyly gets at the meat of Shaw's observations about class, wealth and the evils of capitalist opportunity.
Martin takes a big gamble at the end of his production by inserting a "dream" sequence, of sorts, in which we see the wedding ceremony Higgins derisively imagines taking place at some not-so-distant future between Eliza and the cluelessly wealthy Freddy Eynsford Hill. At one point, Higgins turns in his armchair to look straight at Eliza who looks back at him with just a hint of helpless pleading in her eyes.
The entire sequence is one Shaw never would have countenanced; a false turn in a production that, until that concluding scene, rises well above its shortcomings.
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