Talk about navigating your slippery slopes — that’s what’s facing young mercantile apprentice George Barnwell in George Lillo’s 1731 play
The London Merchant, being co-presented by the Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre at the Church of Notre Dame under Peter Dobbins’ straightforward direction.
Barnwell (Patrick Woodall) spends but one night succumbing to the charms of the manipulative and mercenary courtesan Sarah Millwood (Jessica Myhr), and he’s immediately ready to commit embezzlement — and worse — for another taste of paradise.
Subtlety was not a strong suit for Lillo, whose characters — including Barnwell’s master Thorowgood (played with impressive gravitas by Joe Danbusky) and George’s fellow apprentice, Truman (Harlan Work) — tend to have assigned positions along the virtue/depravity spectrum.
But the work does have a somewhat surprisingly modern sensibility in its creation of Millwood. In a stirring mid-play speech, she lays the blame for her misdeeds on the parade of men who abused her: “Another and another spoiler came … all were alike wicked to the utmost of their power. In pride, contention, avarice, cruelty and revenge, the reverend priesthood were my unerring guides.”
The play could have ended there, but unfortunately Lillo had a didactic mission to fulfill. We follow the lovers right to the brink of the gallows, where the unrepentant Millwood pants in terror as a duly shriven Barnwell beams, confident of a blissful reception on the other side.
Fortunately, the acting has much merit, especially the work of Woodall and Myrh. If they can handle material this abstruse and antiquated this adeptly, just imagine what might happen once they sink their teeth into meatier matter.