A big problem for A Minister’s Wife is that, unlike most of Shaw’s plays, Candida is in my view — though others disagree — dated. It has to do with a woman determining her own fate but the ideas circulating about relationships between men and women, marriage and love, are archaic — and there’s barely a spoonful of Shavian wit. These problems were evident in the recent production of Candida by the Irish Repertory Theater , and setting some speeches to music, as in A Minister’s Wife, doesn’t make them go away.
The situation is a love triangle among Candida, her husband the Reverend James Morell, and Marchbanks, a teen-aged poet and household hanger-on. Candida, who has a good figure and a great head of hair, arrives home from somewhere for a day’s stay. Morell has been so intensely involved in composing one of his passionate socialist sermons that — much as he adores her — he misses picking her up at the train. That’s one of Morell’s weaknesses as a husband — he’s too involved in his work. Oh Oh.
Marchbanks, the boyish, dreamy, idealistic poet who’s in love with Candida seizes the opportunity to woo her with a combination of his own poetic soul and his understanding of her inner woman’s nature, a flirtation Candida enters into in her home and under the eyes of her husband who, understandably, grows angry and, ultimately frightened.
A Minister’s Wife starts auspiciously. The set, the Morell’s living room/office, is an appealing blend of refinement, education and lived-in wear: it conveys the Minister’s seriousness of purpose. Early on, Morell sings, more a recitative than a song but very effective in making real for the audience his powerful sermons — and the Shavian language is up to the idea. Marc Kudisch’s rich baritone and good looks convey believably and pleasurably his often referred to charisma.
That’s the best use of music in The Minister’s Wife. After that, the music is one note per word, plain up and down the scale repetitive to the point of being irritating, and the “songs” never take flight from the mode of recitative.
And who can take the allure Candida finds in Marchbanks seriously? For one thing, Marchbanks, played by Bobby Steggert, is fifteen years younger than Candida. And Morell is a mature, powerfully attractive man to whom his Secretary, everyone who hears his sermons, and Candida herself is attracted. And although the dialog indicates that Marchbanks has a poetic soul, we never hear him say anything of particular poignancy nor hear any powerful poetry from him — mainly he flirts, speaks disrespectfully to Morell (who has rescued him in from a park bench) and, in between times, languishes.
Candida’s flirtation with Marchbanks, and her density and/or callousness (Shaw can’t seem to decide which) about her husband’s feelings, make her seem silly and small, draining her significance. Kate Fry as Candida has a pleasant voice but doesn’t bring a dramatic presence to the role that might help us overlook its weaknesses.
When Liz Bates has center stage, she brings the play temporarily to life with her vitality and wit as Morell’s Secretary, “Prossy,” tough-minded but filled with yearning, aided in her moment of liberation by Morell’s Curate, played by Drew Gehling.
The Morell’s children are briefly mentioned but — on the one day their mother comes home — they never appear. What an error! They may have been in his narrative way — as children often are — but Shaw should have figured out something better than leaving them out, all the more in a play about who protects whom in a marriage.
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House of 1879 never seems dated, but Candida of 1898, Shaw’s answer to A Doll’s House, does. Candida is spirited, but not independent-minded, unlike Nora as her personality emerges in A Doll’s House. In A Minister’s Wife, as in Candida, it all comes down to a very simplified view of who protects whom in a marriage. I find particularly irksome that the resolution of the story — in the play and musical version — infantilizes the mature Morell; to me, this comes across as one of Shaw’s peevish complaints about women, masked as a “modern” story of women and independence.
A Minister’s Wife plays at the Mitzi E Newhouse theater at NYC’s Lincoln Center Theater.