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Widowers' Houses

The Epic Theatre's updated version of George Bernard Shaw' s play is earnest but unsatisfying. logo
James Wallert, Jacob Ming-Trent and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.
in Widowers' Houses
(© Dixie Sheridan)
It's not enough to have your heart in the right place when you create a work of theater. The current adaptation and updating of George Bernard Shaw's first play, Widowers' Houses by the well-meaning duo of Ron Russell and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. is nothing if not earnest. But as directed by Russell with a sledgehammer, this production by the impressive Epic Theatre Center is unsatisfying.

In their infinite wisdom, Russell and Simmons, Jr. have not only updated the play's time period by a century, setting it in 1992, but they've moved it from the "houses on Robbins Row" to the projects in Harlem. While they have kept the plot, the character names, and the essential themes of how the rich feed off the poor, they have otherwise lost all of Shaw's artistry in the transfer. One of the great things about Shaw is that he really doesn't need updating; his plays almost always have a remarkable resonance with the present and are all the more effective today for their ultimate timelessness.

In this updated version of the play, a doctor (James Wallert) related to a powerful political family falls in love with the daughter (Rachael Holmes) of a wealthy African-American slumlord (Peter Jay Fernandez). The slumlord only wants his daughter to be accepted into white society and is willing to turn his fortune over to her when she marries, provided that the doctor supplies proof that his family will not snub her. The family falls into line -- this is not Romeo & Juliet -- but when the doctor learns the source of the landlord's wealth, he is unwilling to take his future father-in-law's ill-gotten money.

He'll still marry the daughter, but she'll have to live on his far more modest earnings -- the interest on a series of bonds that secure loans taken by the slumlord himself. Thus, the circle is complete; the doctor's income is itself derived from the same quagmire of moral shame. Meanwhile, the headstrong young woman will not marry without her father's money to secure her lifestyle. And there is the impasse that ends act one.

Unfortunately, the acting by the company is uneven to say the least. The always reliable Peter Jay Fernandez essays the role of Mr. Sartorius, the gentlemen slumlord and doting father, with upright decorum. His best - and genuinely redeeming - scene is the moment when he explains to his daughter where they came from and how they got to where they are now. It's a riveting and very real moment in the play -- one of the very few.

The role of Trench is charmingly acted by James Wallert, and the one actor who essentially steals what little there is to steal from this production is Jacob Ming-Trent who plays the conniving Lickcheese with an inner drive that brings the character fully to life. On the other hand, Simmons overplays the part of William de Burgh Cokane, Trench's confidante, and Holmes gives a performance that could best be kindly described as inadequate; she is cast well for her looks but not for her acting.

One of the more pleasant distractions of the production is the impressive costume design by Margaret E.Weedon, but it's hardly enough to justify spending time in this Houses.

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