Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Shaw Festival Review: The Charity That Began at Home

Hankin’s Edwardian drawing room comedy centers on the fundamental question of whether any dogma, even one which appears to be driven by genuinely altruistic motives, can be applied universally and have positive results.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: July 2nd, 2014 in Culture » Stage » Reviews

Shaw Festival Review: The Charity That Began at Home

St. John Hankin, a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, is not a name most theater goers are familiar with. His writing career was short although his work had been widely acclaimed in his day. He died tragically in 1909 at the age of 39. None of his plays saw the light of day for most of the twentieth century. Christopher Newton revived Hankin’s The Return of the Prodigal for The Shaw Festival’s 2007 season, and based on its success has now brought The Charity That Began at Home back to life at the Court House Theater.

Hankin’s Edwardian drawing room comedy centers on the fundamental question of whether any dogma, even one which appears to be driven by genuinely altruistic motives, can be applied universally and have positive results. It is a social satire that targets marriage, charity, class, and liberalism as did many British dramatists at the turn of the twentieth century. However, what starts off as a seemingly cliché or dated comedy based upon the antics of a menagerie of ungracious house guests turns into an intelligent exploration of human nature that honestly reflects the era in which the sun began to set on the powerful British empire. Paternalistic attitudes of the aristocracy under the guise of philanthropy were being questioned, and other countries were emerging to challenge the British Empire’s domination of the world that it had enjoyed for over the past three hundred years.

Although the play is slow moving at the beginning and introduces the audience to many characters that are never fully developed, it picks up in the second half and ends in an unexpected way that leads the audience to wonder what could have been, what should have been, or whether love really has anything to do with marital bliss.

What propels The Charity That Began at Home to a world class level of theater is the superb direction of Christopher Newton who understands the power of nuance and detail, and an exceptional cast made up of veteran actors whose talents combine to create a synergistic masterpiece.

The story is set in the country home of Lady Denison and her daughter, Margery, who appears to be a perfect model of generosity and kindness. Influenced by the reverend of the newly formed Church of Humanity, Basil Hylton, they decide to try to live a life dedicated to helping others – the “less deserving”. Margery convinces her mother to invite 5 undeserving guests to their home with the belief that providing them with positive attention, some fresh country air, and pleasant meals will turn them into better people. Lady Denison’s sister-in-law, Mrs Eversleigh, who is also invited to join this motley crew asks, “Who are all these dreadful people?” They are a boring military man who becomes a social outcast by the name of General Bonsor; a judgemental would-be aristocrat, Mrs. Horrocks; Hugh Verreker, a disreputable but charming young man; a demanding German language teacher – Miss Triggs; and a desperate salesman, Mr. Firer. Add some “troublesome” servants to the mix and just as the Edwardian Era itself, we see a strange mix of Victorian propriety, self-indulgence, and social turmoil – and all in the first two acts. However, after the intermission, most of the characters disappear and the play focuses on the unexpected relationship between Margery and Hugh who have impulsively decided to get engaged. Margery loves the idea of saving him from himself and Hugh is quite willing to be saved by a wealthy and attractive young woman who believes he can change.

The three women that dominate the stage and serve as perfect counterweights to each other are Fiona Reid as Lady Denison, Julia Course who plays Margery, and Laurie Paton as Mrs. Eversleigh. Fiona Reid is the befuddled but well-intentioned matron of the house who tries to make everyone happy while preserving some sense of stability and morality in her home. She expertly conveys her feelings of inadequacy and confusion as everything seems to be moving and changing more quickly than she can grasp. Julia Course is able to generate a saintly aura around Margery; a sense of unquestioning righteousness as she tries to improve herself and the world. But by the end, we begin to wonder whether her inflexible dedication to doing good may have robbed her of her humanity. Course’s ability to portray a gentle and caring persona while, at same time, clearly establishing her as the real head of the household is truly impressive. Laurie Paton plays the highly pragmatic sister-in-law who tries to help Lady Denison come to her senses and restore order. Her comic timing and commanding presence allows her to create a strong character that is believable instead of one that could easily be reduced to a characture in the hands of a less skilled actor.

Joining this talented group of women in the spotlight are the two men who fall in love with Margery. Graeme Somerville is the philosophical spiritual leader who believes everyone deserves a second chance. Martin Happer plays the scoundrel who pursues and wins Margery’s hand in marriage. Unfortunately for Somerville, Hankin did not fully realize Hylton’s potential as a character and left me somewhat unsatisfied as I had hoped that through some plot twist or revelation more life would be breathed into the benign reverend that had somehow been able to inspire the Denison women. The character and the performance felt flat and unconvincing. In contrast, Martin Happer delivered a compelling portrayal of the superficial Hugh Verreker, transforming him before our eyes into a man with greater insight and integrity than we could have initially imagined. In the last act, Happer clearly stole the show.

Thanks to Downton Abbey, many of us have fallen in love with the short but fascinating Edwardian era when the aristocracy were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and inequalities producing a huge gap between the rich and poor were rigidly supported by the conventions of a clearly defined class system. Noblesse Oblige was not to be confused with rights; “there was a place for everyone and everyone knew their place”. But the times, they were a changin and it was largely due to social critics such as George Bernard Shaw and St. John Hankin who engaged their audiences in the conversation of social change by demonstrating the absurdity of their underlying attitudes and beliefs. The Charity That Began At Home was born out of that bold experiment and continues to entertain us while begging the question whether it is possible to help others from a position of power and authority instead of allowing them access to the privileges we enjoy? Do we want to change others out of true affection for them or the desire to make ourselves feel good or perhaps superior? Have the inequalities that existed in Edwardian Britain been merely transformed into another form of haves and have nots that are still causing turmoil, conflict, and suffering around the world?

As you leave the Courthouse Theater and head down the street to Treadwell’s to enjoy a luxurious meal, you and your companions may take a moment to raise a glass to how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is now available. For more information, visit www.cowalkers.com.

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