She Stoops To Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith, directed by Nicholas Martin, Williamstown Theatre Festival

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Kristine Nielsen in a scene from She Stoops To Conquer at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.
Kristine Nielsen in a scene from She Stoops To Conquer at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

She Stoops To Conquer
by Oliver Goldsmith
directed by Nicholas Martin
Williamstown Theatre Festival
July 27-August 7, 2011

Creative Team:
Scenic Design – David Korins
Costume Design – Gabriel Berry
Lighting Design – Ben Stanton
Sound Design – Drew Levy
Dialect Coach – Louis Colaianni
Production Stage Manager – Lauren Kurinskas
Production Manager – Jeremiah Thies

Tony Lumpkin – Brooks Ashmanskas
Miss Hardcastle – Mia Barron
Diggory/ Sir Charles – Richard Easton
Miss Constance Neville – Holley Fain
Mrs. Hardcastle – Kristine Nielsen
Charles Marlow – Jon Patrick Walker
George Hastings – Jeremy Webb
Mr. Hardcastle – Paxton Whitehead

As the run of Oliver Goldsmith’s comic masterpiece, She Stoops to Conquer, draws to a close, by all means rush to catch it while you can. You will see an endlessly amusing and enlightening classic, a handsome set, and a cast of highly talented actors, including WTF favorites like Richard Easton, Paxton Whitehead, and Brooks Ashmanskas. The production is fast-moving—at the cost of some excessive trimming—and funny, as a good part of the audience found it. That said, it is a far-from-perfect production, in fact it is seriously flawed, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing the show and enjoying it. There is a lot to enjoy, and much of the audience laughed uproariously at Kristin Neilsen’s wildly exaggerated portrayal of Mrs. Hardcastle. You may even find that you are among them.

She Stoops to Conquer was an immediate success on its premiere in 1773, a great relief to its author, Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774), an Irishman of a somewhat spotty education, who made the risky decision to earn his living as a writer. Sadly he had only one year to enjoy it before his death at the age of 43. While Goldsmith wrote a good deal of hack work, his more careful productions earned him the respect and friendship of Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds, as well as a founding membership in their circle, “The Club.” His novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and She Stoops to Conquer, with their natural, but poised and colorful language, and an insight into character and human situations which goes below the surface with a winning lack of pretension, have their way of taking over a special place in the affections of their readers or audiences. The sense of equilibrium in his narrative is so strong that the enormity of the darker characters’ behavior blossoms slowly in the reader’s mind. There is never a sensationalistic exposure of the worst human depravity, nor a grand struggle between virtue and vice. Things really could take a very bad turn in the Vicar, but familial affection, true love, and plain human decency keep things on course in their own unobtrusive way, so that all is well in the end.

Similarly, in She Stoops to Conquer, one can’t help feeling that an affectionate regard for the better side of human nature is in a balancing act with a deep inner pessimism. (Life is not quite as dangerous in the Hardcastles’ corner of England, as it is in the novel.) The more frivolous delusions of Mrs. Hardcastle have their way of mitigating her more serious vice, greed. Her exchanges with her uneducated son, Tony, are entertaining in themselves, but they hint at a morbid co-dependency which makes Tony a permanent pre-adolescent. There’s an amusing paradox in the young Charles’ almost predatory confidence in dealing with lower class women and his total ineptitude in communicating with women of his own standing. Goldsmith goes beyond the humor in it and creates an open-minded portrait of a young man suffering from a pathological lack of confidence. His treatment is direct and simple: things are what they are, which is something more than what they seem. In the end no justice is meted out, but the truth is revealed, and the characters leave the stage in a happy condition. Goldsmith’s fundamental realism recommends a realistic style of presentation, which allows the audience to keep a certain distance and to take in the characters and their behavior for what they are. The beauty of Goldsmith’s characterization is his way of avoiding moral types. None of his characters are cut from a pattern.

In this production Nicholas Martin in general cleaves to this realism, beginning with the behavior of most of the cast and the pictorial, detailed sets by David Korins and costumes by Gabriel Berry. At moments one feels safely contained within the boundaries of a traditional production. A fine cast navigate more or less sure-footedly through Goldsmith’s plain, but pointed prose. One aspect of the production one can’t praise enough was the comfort and assurance of virtually all the actors in Goldsmith’s language and dramaturgy. They seemed entirely at ease with Goldsmith’s many asides, most notably Mia Barron, who otherwise had her wooden moments. On the other hand, from the very beginning, as Mr. and Mrs Hardcastle argue, more or less reasonably, if from entrenched positions, about the value of London in their provincial lives, the center of attention is on their words and the way they communicate, and they do communicate, even if they don’t come to an agreement. What a shock to have the fine points of their conversation drowned out by Mrs. Hardcastle’s enormous pink dress and frowzy pink wig, when her consort looks like a reasonable country gentleman! The costume and Kristine Nielsen give the impression that Mrs. H. is so deeply planted in her own delusions that she is virtually insane. We can expect nothing but shrieks and swoops from her from then on. Mr. H., Hastings, Miss Neville, or whoever else talks to her is reduced to the role of the straight man. All of the actors in question are strong in their craft, and their own roles eventually emerge, but only after the initial blows of Nielsen’s Mrs, Hardcastle have subsided. Just as when you meet someone  in real life who “comes on too strong,” I found myself shutting down during her displays. I don’t think Ms. Nielsen deserves all or even most of the blame for this, because there is a quality to her delivery beneath the forced antics that suggests she might approach the role in another, more restrained way, and that it might even be more natural for her. Her performance, apart from the initial concept, was excellent. A caricatural Mrs. Hardcastle is part of Nicholas Martin’s concept in this production, which opened at Princeton in 2009. In any case, it throws the dear old classic off balance and cheapens it. One wonders if Mr. Martin doesn’t have Broadway in mind, and if this is what it takes to get there.

Only Tony Lumpkin could truly stand up to her onslaught in Brooks Ashmanskas’ more mildly caricatural treatment. In this case, his approach was grounded in tradition. Ashmanskas applied his own repertory of comic routines and mannerisms to the troublesome young man and succeeded in rousing a respectable share of laughs from the audience. He is, after all, an actor of considerable accomplishment. But once again, the exaggerated type overshadowed some of the detail in Goldsmith’s character, for Tony is rounded out by his own light and shade, and it is this, rather than bald comedy, that has made him such a popular character over the generations. Ashmanskas was supposedly speaking with some sort of North Country accent, but it didn’t sound quite right, more like a Scots accent that didn’t sound quite right.

Mia Barron, Jon Patrick Walker in a scene from She Stoops To Conquer at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.
Mia Barron, Jon Patrick Walker in a scene from She Stoops To Conquer at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

The sorriest victim of the juggernaut was Mia Barron, who gave a solid, but somewhat colorless performance as Miss Hardcastle. Ms. Barron saw her character as a good, sensible daughter of Mr. H. and stuck to it throughout the evening. She also projected her character’s independence and knowledge of her own mind, even when in doubt. I warmed to her performance, still finding it rather limited. There was some affection, but none of the sense of conspiracy with her father, when they hatch their plan and consult about it, as it unfolds. Above all, her mother usurped her place as the central female character in the play. The daughter, with her role-playing and change of accents should be the center of interest: she is the titular character, after all. My feeling is that Barron’s work will improve over the run.

Holley Fain and Jeremy Webb were fully in control of their parts as the young lovers, Miss Constance Neville and George Hardcastle. In fact they made such an attractive couple that one could almost imagine them as a pair of porcelain figurines. Both went beyond the basics of their characters, although Ms. Fain might have been a bit less passive around Tony, whom she so cordially loathes.

Paxton Whitehead, Richard Easton in a scene from She Stoops To Conquer at Williamstown Theatre Festival. PhotoT. Charles Erickson.
Paxton Whitehead, Richard Easton in a scene from She Stoops To Conquer at Williamstown Theatre Festival. PhotoT. Charles Erickson.

Paxton Whitehead rang entirely true as a robust, soundly centered Hardcastle, whose later confusion was all the more amusing for his good relations with common sense. The color of his delivery, in his splendid bass tones, carried his scenes with his less expressive daughter.

Jon Patrick Walker as Marlow and Jeremy Webb as Hastings were appealing young suitors. Walker’s social crumbling in the presence of his potential fiancée and his double modes of behavior left little to be desired. I have imagined the character a rather less likeable person, perhaps with more of a touch of the prig and the snob, but Walker’s Marlow engaging qualities served well.

It is always a pleasure to see Richard Easton on stage, even in small roles which don’t give him quite his full scope. WTF audiences will remember his splendid interpretation of Jack in David Storey’s Home, a role written for Ralph Richardson. Here he played Diggory, the countrified servant, with a memorably rustic presence and vivid detail. He took a briefer, but equally surely limned turn at the end as Marlow Senior.

The distractions I have mentioned were most noticeable in the first act. After the break, the action seemed to flow along more assuredly, with most things in place and a nicely paced dénouement.

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