Poetry or piety? For the title character of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida,” it’s an eminently theatrical question.
Asked to choose between two men — the charismatic preacher she married and the much younger poet who worships her — Candida emerges as one of the playwright’s most compelling creations.
In his vibrant new California Shakespeare Theater production, director Jonathan Moscone invests Shaw’s comedy with a supercharged blend of wit and simmering sensuality. Brisk pacing, excellent designs and a superb cast make the two-hour staging the company’s finest entry of the season so far.
Written in 1895 — when English women still couldn’t vote or inherit property — “Candida” offers both a study of the Victorian era and a portrait of a woman capable of shaping her own destiny.
Candida is an intelligent, loving wife — one who supports her husband, the Reverend James Morell, in countless ways — and her managerial touch is evident in every facet of Moscone’s production, from Annie Smart’s handsome parlor set and York Kennedy’s glowing lighting to Anna Oliver’s proper, buttoned-up costumes.
The harmony doesn’t last long. The young poet Marchbanks arrives, announces that he’s in love with Candida, and declares Morell a hopeless hypocrite unworthy of so exquisite a mate. Eventually, the two men demand that Candida choose between them.
“Candida” isn’t the first play to center on a love triangle, but Shaw’s bracing humor and probing social questions make the ensuing battle irresistible. Moscone balances the elements with clarity and feeling, and the cast inhabits the roles with humanity.
Top honors go to Anthony Fusco, whose self-involved Morell makes his awakening to the danger of the situation both hilarious and gripping. In the past decade, Fusco has distinguished himself as one of the Bay Area’s most resourceful actors, and he gives a first-rate performance here.
Julie Eccles’ Candida, radiating poise and refinement, is just as fine, slowly revealing the passionate nature that Marchbanks has seen from the beginning. Nick Gabriel’s callow poet combines swooning Romanticism with muscular physicality.
The supporting cast makes strong contributions. Jarion Monroe is aptly blunt and buffoonish as Burgess, Candida’s businessman father. Alexandra Henrikson is an antic Proserpine, Morell’s adoring secretary. Liam Vincent is earnest and articulate as the Rev. Lexy Mill.
Still, it’s Candida who engaged Shaw, and it’s Candida who beguiles the audience. By Act 3, the helpful wife of Act 1 shows us who’s really running the Reverend’s house.
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 4
Tickets: $35 to $66
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org