By Philip Pearce
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW had passionate platonic love affairs with several of the leading ladies who acted in his plays. Platonic enough that he could claim these theatrical amours provided his wife Charlotte with regular amusement. And passionate enough to spark a lot of steamy and witty romance, if only in the letters the doughty Irishman exchanged with the actresses he swore he loved.
None of these relationships was as long-lived or heartfelt as the correspondence that began when Shaw was trying to persuade London stage superstar Mrs Patrick Campbell to take on the role of the teen-aged cockney flower girl in the premier production of Pygmalion. Their epistolary skirmishing didn’t end when, aged 49, the lady triumphed as Eliza in 1914. Their letters continued, fast and furious, through World War I right up to the lead-in to World War II.
Jerome Kilty has mined this collection in an insightful comedy of letters called Dear Liar. Suzanne Sturn and Robert Colter (pictured below) are giving it a stylish and beguiling reading under the Listening Place Readers Theater aegis at the Monterey Museum of Art.
Sturn directs the piece with a keen eye to movement and variety in a format that can’t be allowed to settle into actors turning pages behind music stands. For starters, she and Colter use tall bar stools that allow them to sit down from time to time without disappearing behind the head of the patron seated in front of you at the museum.
The couple move, react and link artfully. My Fair Lady fans (and who isn’t?) were delighted with the rendition of some early Pygmalion rehearsals. We followed Eliza’s first meeting with Higgins (“Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf…”) under the portico of St Paul’s Covent Garden. Then, in a hilarious bit of tomfoolery, Sturn and Colter did the famous tea party scene with a flawlessly posh Eliza describing the theft of a hat and her family’s addiction to gin. As Sturn’s Eliza natters on, Colter dashes back and forth across the playing area, shifting between the roles of Freddy, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill and Mrs Higgins without missing a beat.
Colter offers a funny but never caricatured Shaw, capable of the high-jinks that motivated Mrs PC to dub him Joey the Clown, but also offering a terrifying barrage of rage in his angry pacifist outburst against a First World War he regarded as a bloodthirsty and hypocritical catastrophe.
Sturn is a blissful Mrs Pat, full of coy teasing as she plays her besotted letter-writing partner like a deft histrionic angler landing a prize fish. Both characters have their moments of wounded personal tragedy, but hers are deeper than Shaw’s. The power of Sturn’s characterization lies in the way she shifts, year by year, from the haughty and frolicsome tactics of an early 20th century diva to the pathetic struggles of an aging has-been trying to revive her glory days. Short of cash and trapped in small parts by a Hollywood she hates, she wheedles her old admirer without success to slip her into a walk-on in one of his later plays.
Dear Liar, the lady’s shrewd assessment of a man who values dramatic effect more than literal truth, is a bright, slickly performed event. There’s just one more performance, 1:30 Sunday at the Monterey Art Museum. I recommend it heartily.