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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008

Finance and Morality

Theater Review

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George Bernard Shaw's first play ever produced, Widowers' Houses, is a sharp, socially conscious analysis of morality that still resonates today. American Players Theatre (APT) in Spring Green brings Shaw's 115-year-old comedy to the stage as one of its final summer productions.

  Though the plot involves the tiring drama of finance and morality, APT brightens even the dreariest moments, having assembled a brilliant ensemble cast, authentic period costuming and a classy set free from excessive ornamentation.

  Matt Schwader plays Dr. Harry Trench, a young British gentleman celebrating his recent graduation from medical school by vacationing in Europe with his tactful older friend, Mr. Cokane (Henry Woronicz). During his journey, Trench meets Blanche Sartorius (Susan Shunk), an attractive young woman he wishes to marry. After navigating the bewildering maze of formalities involved in getting engaged in refined, 19th-century British society, Trench is dismayed to discover that Blanche's family wealth comes from her father's stature as the biggest slumlord in London. Trench is even more upset when he finds that his own income is derived from Mr. Sartorius' ventures.

  Brian Mani shows rich depth in his portrayal of the elder Sartorius, a successful businessman filled with emotional darkness. Schwader, who appeared as Prince Henry in Henry IV and Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream for APT earlier this year, does an excellent job of expressing the horror of the altruistic Dr. Trench after he realizes that his worldly comforts stem from those who live in squalor.

  Shaw's statement on the questionable morality of business as it relates to wealth and poverty is particularly crafty in the character of Mr. Lickcheese, played deftly by APT Core Acting Company member James Ridge. We first see Lickcheese as a compassionate, lower-class thug working for Mr. Sartorius. Sartorius later fires Lickcheese for showing too much compassion. Further into the play, Lickcheese finds success in helping slumlords like Sartorius fix their properties, which in turn makes them unaffordable for the poor tenants they once housed. Clearly Shaw wasn't looking for easy answers, which makes for a refreshing play more than a century later.

  The American Players Theatre's production of Widowers' Houses runs through Oct. 4.