The winning "dramedy of manners" "A Man and Some Women" enjoys the blessing wrapped in a gentle curse that can plague the "lesser" shows of summer theater festivals. It has a built-in audience of theater-loving vacationers and day-trippers, but it must compete for seats with shows of more prominence and familiarity.
At the 2012 Shaw Festival, everyone has heard of the shows in the big Festival Theater – "Ragtime," "Present Laughter," "His Girl Friday." Heck, they've seen the movies.
But after that, it is time to explore the rest of the Shaw buffet. And that includes plays ticket-buyers know almost nothing about, such as Githa Sowerby's pointed drama (or is it a comedy?) "A Man and Some Women."
Sowerby's play, written almost 100 years ago, is getting a second life on the Court House Theatre stage. It was pushed into obscurity shortly after its 1914 premiere, as Britain was drawn into World War I, and was not produced again until 1996 in Bristol, according to the program notes.
For Shaw audiences, Sowerby is not a complete unknown. Her play "The Stepmother" was presented in 2008, and her best known work, "Rutherford and Son," was part of the 2004 season.
"A Man and Some Women" deserves attention on its own. Director Alisa Palmer stays true to Sowerby's time in style and costume, but there is nothing of the dusty bustle about the sharp way she draws out her characters and their often funny, if unhappy, dialogue.
In the London of 1913, women were marching for suffrage and protesting for the right to be free to work. The changes of an industrial society were wearing powerfully on an outdated system of class and dependency.
Liberation has not yet come to the home of Richard Shannon (the perfectly put-upon Graeme Somerville), who finds himself supporting ever-more female members of his family. His wife, spinster sisters and distant cousin share his house, and, as the play opens, he is also ministering to his dying mother.
It is not as cozy as it sounds. The Shannon sisters are not with their mother because she can't stand the sight of them; for Rose Shannon (played with brittle spirit by Kate Hennig), that's OK. All she really wants is to know what she is left in the will, to have her own money and get away from her brother, who "gets more silent and ill-humored every day."
As Rose runs on, her more kind-hearted sister Elizabeth (Sharry Fleet, a model of moderation) interrupts one of her rants to point out, "You have the most extraordinary way of bringing up unpleasant subjects!"
That is because nothing pleases Rose more than to get one-up on someone else, especially those in her family.
As written, flat on the page, the story that unwinds from their mother's death and the subsequent revelations about the women's true financial position could be angry, biting and cruel. They are not.
Palmer instead elevates the action to an almost laughable misadventure of good intentions, foul suspicions and bald greed. The emotions are raw, but the show engages, not pummels, us with its feelings.
Imagine Richard's wife, Hilda (airily embodied in Jenny L. Wright), whose discontent springs not from her lot in life but in the fact that there's so little of it. She can forgive anything as long as it doesn't involve money, and has the facetiously flattened personality to show for it.
Young Jessica Hendred (Marla McLean) is her opposite. Of questionable social standing (her father ran off) and of barely independent means with a job as an illustrator, she wants another kind of future for herself. She is the modern woman of the piece – and the most attractive.
The action comes to a head with more honesty in two days than the characters have shared in their lives, as whispering gossip transforms into a rousing row. Except for a rather too-happy conclusion (we are warned, throughout, that Richard is indeed a wonderful man), Sowerby has provided a vivid and detailed exposition of how social conventions can create a prison for all who must live under them.
The play echoes in many ways 2010's production of "Age of Arousal" on this same stage, in which unmarried women were forced to find ways to support themselves. These shows are a good fit for a festival dedicated to Shaw, and a fitting tribute to his most memorable creation, the hard-working flower girl Eliza Doolittle.
> THEATER REVIEW
"A Man and Some Women"
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
Drama presented through Sept. 28 ?by the Shaw Festival ?in the Court House ?Theatre, 26 Queen St. ?At left, are Jenny L. Wright, Graeme ?Somerville and ?Kate Hennig.