Over the weekend we attended the misnamed Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Of this year’s eleven productions, only two are by George Bernard Shaw: The Millionairess and Misalliance. As I recall, some years back, the Festival decided to expand beyond Shavian wit to include any play written during his lifetime, a vast period encompassing almost a century, from 1856 to 1950. I guess that was an understandable move. You can only sit through all four acts of Man and Superman once in your life. Still, Shaw did write more than 60 plays. You’d think that would be sufficient to fill a few summer schedules. Stratford has followed a similar strategy to move away from its original oeuvre: of this year’s fourteen productions only three were penned by William Shakespeare.
But the Shaw Festival seems to have abandoned even that broad canvas of Shaw and his contemporaries. One of the plays we saw, Ragtime, was based on a 1975 novel and first produced on stage in 1996. This version of Ragtime is a dud. The only two outstanding voices were Thom Allison as Coalhouse and Alana Hibbert as Sarah and she dies before the intermission. Apart from this saggy production, why put on such a sad musical? The only explanation must have been to pander to American tourists. But any thinking American would realize that the theme – racial relations haven’t improved much since the time in which the play was set a century ago – was a real downer. Give me the upbeat South Pacific or the rowdy Oklahoma anytime, each with many a hummable tune.
By contrast, Come Back, Little Sheba was terrific. Corrine Koslo as Lola and Ric Reid as Doc Delaney perfectly portray the despair and despondency of an unhappy marriage. The supporting cast was excellent. William Inge was the first playwright to bring to the stage desperate elements of family life such as alcoholism and a shotgun wedding. While the shock value is far less today than it was when first produced, the themes are eternal. And, in the end, there is redemption. Looking ahead to the 2013 season, for what its worth, here’s my advice: always send the audience home with a laugh or at least some hope that life’s worth living.