Dallas — George Bernard Shaw’s letter-writing was wonderful performance art—yet another outlet for his clever way with quips and epigrams, vitriol and humor. Shaw lived out loud, even on paper, and the world endlessly enjoyed the show. He became a sort of British Twain, the go-to guy for opinions on everything—a pundit born at one mid-century mark (in 1856) who kept on punditing right up to the middle of the next. He died in 1950.
Shaw sometimes can seem as “on” and calculated as the character he wrote for Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins—the fellow Eliza Dolittle says is like a city bus, “all bounce and go, with no consideration for anyone.” But in the letters of Dear Liar!, Jerome Kilty’s 1964 play about the 40-year correspondence between Shaw and the famed English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, it’s heart-warming to find that Shaw could set aside the wordplay and share deeper feelings—sometimes even kind words—with a friend.
WingSpan Theatre Company’s revival of Dear Liar! at The Bath House Cultural Center is a low-key but genuine pleasure. Director Susan Sargeant does a fine job of creating an illusory hum of onstage activity in a story that’s essentially static—the usual sticking point of a “reading our letters” (epistolary, if you must) play. The actors’ lines have a quick and easy conversational swing, and Sargeant has given them plenty of nicely eye-catching stage “business”: “Mrs. Pat” (Lisa Fairchild) circles behind Shaw, leaning intimately over his shoulder to drop a letter on the desk. Shaw (Alan Pollard) stamps his feet in rage as he writes a response to something especially maddening she’s written. They drink tea like pinky-up synchronized swimmers, lifting cups and clicking them down in unison.
From 1899 to her death in 1939 on the eve of World War II, George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Stella Campbell kept up a back-and-forth volley of wit, wisdom, snark, anger, and deep (though often exasperated) affection. They talked about everything, and their quarrels were bitter. The earliest letters Shaw sent to his “Stella Stellarum” are romantic, flirtatious, even sensual—words from a starstruck young playwright and journalist trying to impress a lady. She flirts back. He teases her about other lady pen pals—Shaw wrote for years to the actress Ellen Terry (John Gielgud’s aunt, by the way)—but Mrs. Pat outlasted them all. A widow when they met, she starred in plays Shaw wrote especially for her (Campbell's Eliza in Pygmalion was the biggest hit of them all), and married again—though she didn’t tell Shaw until after the deed was done.
Shaw was a newly married man in the first years of their correspondence (though the play doesn’t quite make that clear). He calls Stella his “rose” and his wife Charlotte a “cabbage” in one memorable letter—but then asks, with startling honesty, which of these is more essential to life? Shaw stayed married to his “cabbage” until her death in 1943. In later years, Shaw and Mrs. Pat (who was, by then, struggling to support herself) quarreled over her desire to publish their letters—he fearing the earlier, more torrid ones would wound or embarrass his wife.
Both actors make a splash in their mainstage debuts at WingSpan, though there are things here and there to quibble about: Pollard has Shaw’s quick-step word patter down, but struggles to hang onto the Irish accent—and though he talks about getting older, his body language doesn’t convey much. Fairchild sounds credibly English, but at times we’d like her to dig deeper, to put stronger emotion behind the words. Campbell and Shaw saw one another through some very tough stuff, after all: the loss of much-loved mothers and faithless husbands; their mutual rage over the “senseless death” and “stupid fighting” of the First World War—which ended just after Campbell’s son was killed in the trenches.
Barbara Cox’s costumes are lovely, especially the graceful, varied designs for Mrs. Pat: were women’s clothes ever prettier than in, say, the year 1910? Nick Brethauer’s scenic design is a pair of his-and-her desks, with a hat box on a stand between them. (That’s where the letters ended up, in that hat box, whisked out of Paris just before the Nazis came to town.) The stage is framed by squared-off pillars and arches plastered with typed pages—of the letters themselves and the book that was made from them. It’s a nice touch—especially if you walk up and read one of Shaw’s letters that isn’t in the play, warning Mrs. Pat not to believe his “lies, lies, lies.” Lighting designer Susan White gives the evening a nice final touch.
Plays in the key of Dear Liar! sing a self-selecting song: If you’re drawn to them, you already know it. But it’s quite fun to watch these two masterful self-dramatists at play, so entirely pleased with their sparkly fauxmance. Did things ever get more serious? There’s a hint or two—but they aren’t about to tell.
» Read our interview with Lisa Fairchild