Benedict Campbell and Ric Reid in The Entertainer
(© Emily Cooper)
Benedict Campbell and Ric Reid in The Entertainer
(© Emily Cooper)
Amid the endless family portraits that have surfaced in the theater, few have ever been painted with as many somber colors as those surfacing in John Osborne's acclaimed play The Entertainer, now being given a strong revival at the Shaw Festival.

Osborne's intrepid narrative reinforces the idea that showbiz types -- even the shabby sort -- are by no means the people on the inside that they appear to be on the outside. Fortunately, director Jackie Maxwell's sophisticated interpretation of the piece and the razor-sharp performances of the cast, led by Benedict Campbell, overcome the sometime arid material and keeps audiences fully engaged for three acts.

The quarrelsome drama opens with pragmatic daughter Jean (Krista Colosimo) returning home for a visit with her idle grandfather Billy (David Shurmann) on hand to greet her. Almost 20 minutes of dialogue ensues until her father, the fading vaudevillian Archie Rice (Campbell), finally walks through the door. And once he does, the household niceties are far and few between, especially when Archie's long-suffering wife, Phoebe (Corrine Koslo), is on hand.

Make no mistake: Despite its breezy-sounding title, relationship strains dominate the play. When not sipping spirits, the polarized characters heighten the air of conflict with brash exchanges. "We have problems that no one has ever heard of," defends Archie in his analysis of the family's peculiar status quo.

As Arrchie, Campbell is perfection. He not only works the room as if the part was written for him, but the actor's transformation from heartless family man to song-and-dance star illustrates Campbell's superb mastery of his craft. Meanwhile, Koslo earns streams of empathy as an emotionally discarded woman entangled in a loveless marriage.

Indeed, more than a half century after its debut, The Entertainer is still a vivid reminder of what failure and vanity can to do an already damaged soul.