STOCKBRIDGE - "Candida" was reportedly George Bernard Shaw's favorite of his own comedies, and the sparkling, intelligent production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival makes it easy to see why.
Director Anders Cato and his cast keep the arguments and witticisms flowing smoothly, and they also keep in mind that Shaw's characters, for all their misunderstandings and mistakes, really are fond of one another. The production is lovely to look at, with handsome costumes by Olivera Gajic and a lovingly detailed Arts and Crafts set by Hugh Landwehr, but it's even lovelier to listen to: All that Shavian talk, which can sometimes feel overwhelming, here seems simply the natural way in which such creatures would of course express themselves.
Thus the Rev. James Mavor Morell, the Socialist parson whose fear that his wife, Candida, has fallen in love with a younger man forms the engine of the plot, launches frequently into slightly grandiose phrases of sermonizing wisdom; yet he yet never bores us, thanks to the twinkle in actor Michel Gill's eye. The young mooncalf, Eugene Marchbanks, is every bit as ridiculous as he should be - and every bit as endearingly poetic as he must be, with newcomer Finn Wittrock supplying both absurdity and charm in the role. In smaller parts, Samantha Soule is charmingly reserved as the secretary, Miss Proserpine Garnett, and David Schramm is wonderfully blustery and coarse as Candida's father, Mr. Burgess.
Best of all is Jayne Atkinson as Candida. (She's Gill's wife offstage, too, which explains some but not all of their effortless way with the rhythms of spousal conversation.) Supremely kind, supremely intelligent, supremely playful, Atkinson's Candida is the very embodiment of the female half of Shaw's beloved Life Force: the almost superhuman woman whose energy and will drive every move of the anxious men who foolishly imagine themselves superior to her.
What makes "Candida" at once extremely funny and extremely serious is Shaw's success in withholding, from us as well as from the men, a full understanding of Candida's heart. We think we know, better than the loving husband or the adoring young pup, what she feels as they battle over her like a prized possession. But the genius of Shaw's assertion of her full humanity and autonomy is that he never, even at the end, forces her to explain herself completely. If she's truly human, she has a right to keep some thoughts to herself.
It's this self-containment that Atkinson most beautifully portrays, with nothing more than a tolerant smile or a half-suppressed flash of indignation. But
What does a woman want? More women - and men - like this onstage, please.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.