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Theater Review:

"PYGMALION" at Apple Tree Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

A successful production of George Bernard Shaw’s timeless class-conscious drama, "Pygmalion" (upon which the musical "My Fair Lady" is based) is dependent on the stubbornly loving interplay between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. So no matter how polished the overall staging might be, that central relationship forms the crux of Shaw’s intricately balanced view of social mores and hypocrisies that cut across all class divisions. Without it, the play is rendered trivial and pointless.

Such is the problem faced by Apple Tree Theatre’s sharp but ultimately unsatisfying production of "Pygmalion."

Set in 1935 London, this witty and wry drama tells the story of intrepid phonetics professor Higgins’ innocent but cruel experiment – begun as a wager at the urging of his fellow scholar Colonel Pickering – to transform a Cockney flower girl, Eliza, into a refined English lady.

A confirmed bachelor, Higgins realizes too late both his affectionate feelings toward Eliza and the half-realized joke he has played on her: How can Eliza ever connect with her former waifs again after her transformation, yet what if she is never truly accepted into upper-class society? In a sense, Higgins leaves Eliza in an emotional and social limbo – made all the more frustrating by the fact that she is now acutely aware of her heartbreaking dilemma.

Throughout his omni-layered play, Shaw questions who is being crueler to whom from the standpoint of the upper and lower classes. He also ponders the challenges inherent to a self-servingly philanthropic society and the consequences of shaping a seemingly ill-bred woman into the very dubious pillar of respectable womanhood. "Pygmalion" also explores the subtle ways one class, accustomed to exclusive privileges, keeps the other one in its repressed place. On the flip side, genteel individuals might be the greater slaves to daunting codes of behavior and conformity than their free-spirited and poorer polar opposites.

The issue of women’s independence comes into play, as well as Shaw’s most pungent message: that self-dignity is achieved not by how one behaves but by how one is treated.

William Brown directs a capable, briskly paced production – although it’s not up to his usually impeccable standards. Tim Morrison’s bland and unoriginal scenic design – in which every scene looks like it’s set in Higgins’ drawing room – undermines the sophisticated efforts of most of the cast. Jana Stauffer’s exquisite vintage costumes, however, are a joy to behold.

But most disturbing is Daniel J. Travanti’s perpetually petulant interpretation of Higgins. He remains so distant from his fellow actors, one might believe he’s doing his own curmudgeonly one-man show in the corner. And in a play rooted in phonetics, requiring a flawless attention to dialect, Travanti’s accent is the most elusive and indefinable. In fact, he swallows his lines at the same time he strains to enunciate – preventing him from exploring and perfecting the multiple dimensions of his crucial character. Moreover, he doesn’t bother to convincingly react – or react at all for that matter – to burning revelations in the script delivered by his fellow actors.

That’s too bad because Kate Fry as Eliza delivers one of the most transformative and transcendent performances of her career – wholly centered and in control of every nuance and desire of her character. Other consummate professionals, who have truly invested in their roles, are Roger Mueller as Colonel Pickering; Elaine Carlson as Higgins’ fastidious housekeeper Mrs. Pearce; Ann Whitney as Higgins’ dignified and compassionate mother; and Bill McGough as Eliza’s buffoonishly opportunistic father.

But their noble efforts are regrettably foiled by Travanti’s embittered and ruefully detached Higgins.•

"Pygmalion" runs through October 28 at Apple Tree Theatre, 595 Elm Place, Suite 210, Highland Park. Tickets: $30-$35. Call 847-432-4335 or log onto www.appletreetheatre.com.

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