According to Lady Remenham: "Engagements are such troublesome things. They sometimes even lead to marriage. But we'll hope it won't be as bad as that in this case."
This succinct thumbnail analysis, given in the opening scene of "The Cassilis Engagement," is a foretaste of the twists and turns about to unfold in this play by St. John Hankin (1869-1909), a striking comedy of manners among the English landed gentry.
Adelaide Cassilis is faced with the fact that her genteel but spoiled son Geoffrey has gotten himself engaged to Ethel Borridge, a pretty but wholly uncultured London shop girl who has just started to take her first probing steps away from her Cockney background.
All the neighbors near the Cassilis' Leicestershire homestead are aghast at this development. So is Mrs. Cassilis, who views Ethel as the first rival she has ever had for her son's affections and is preparing for a struggle. "I'm going to win," she exclaims. "I've no doubt whatsoever about that."
Her confidence is not based on any attempt at overt conflict, but on a passive plan to invite Ethel and her mother to the country estate for an extended stay where she will smother them with kindness.
Goldie Semple plays the role of Mrs. Cassilis to perfection, always drawing a fine line between an aristocratic, solicitous demeanor and patronizing overkill.
Her counterpart, Mrs. Borridge, is also superbly portrayed by Mary Haney, who buys into this treatment 100 percent. She is loud and crude, attired in a tacky blue dress with a broad orange stripe descending from the shoulders across the bust.
Ethel, slightly more worldly, is sensitively played by Trish Lindstrom. She gradually senses that she is out of place when Geoffrey and Mabel chattily go off horseback riding every day, leaving her alone. Her big act of revenge is to follow Mabel's pallid singing with a lusty music hall ballad meant to shock -- and succeeding in spades.
Lady Remenham is high-handedly played by Donna Belleville, commanding the stage, as needed, with equal parts aristocratic superiority and high dudgeon. Charlotte Gowdy is appropriately retiring and mannerly as Mabel.
Patrick Galligan injects a most welcome note of levity as Lady Remenham's reprobate brother, Major Warrington, who has apparently drunk his way out of the army and knows the underside of life.
The terminally naive Geoffrey is perfectly characterized by David Leyshon. He reveals his shallowness by shouting, "How was I to know that? Why didn't someone tell me?" when it was suggested that the neighbors all assumed he'd eventually marry Mabel.
Sets by William Schmuck are in fine keeping with the English countryside ambience, and the direction by Christopher Newton proves that Hankin's name can be added to the list including Noel Coward and others that Newton handles better than anyone.
"The Cassilis Engagement"
Review: Four stars (out of four)
Running through Oct. 5 in the Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. For more information, call (800) 511-SHAW or visit www.shawfest.com