The story of A Minister’s Wife, which just opened at the San Jose Rep, flows easily from George Bernard Shaw’s play Candida (1894) – and brings Shaw’s signature dry wit, moving from fatheads to higher powers with lightning speed.
Don’t be duped into thinking that this show about the minister’s wife’s suitors might bear any similarity to that other story (My Fair Lady) based upon a GBS play. Although they share Shaw’s wit, this one is more subtle, more restrained, lacking in the rollicking good humor of My Fair Lady. This musical has other strengths – not the least of which is the voice of Tim Homsley. Homsley, who plays Eugene Marchbanks, has one of the best voices I’ve heard on stage in a long time, ending lines with an unexpected sweetness.
I’m a beer teetotaller, not a champagne teetotaler.
Extraordinary attention was devoted to set and costume design. The drawing room of Minister’s Wife, designed by Collette Pollard, is a space you dream of moving into, with spare lines and restraint appropriate to an Anglican minister, but filled with rich colors and walled bookcases laden with books. This is a household place, is fit both to pen sermons and entertain guests. Virtually all the action of this 95-minute play takes place on this set, which is a lot of time to spend in any one place. However,the different areas of the stage, each with a different type of activity associated with it, break up the action and keep plot moving forward.
This drawing room, home to the minister’s household, also provides a narrow view into a back music room, creating the sense that there’s something happening elsewhere. A four-member band provides an almost perpetual accompaniment. The floating piano arpeggios nibbling on the edges of your consciousness are never overstated, but enhance the dialogue, providing occasional moments of auditory delight that fit perfectly with the set.
The only catch here is that the story itself might be of limited appeal. Written as much to inform an audience about Christian socialism (as opposed to other flavors of socialism which remain religiously unaligned) and to highlight the wisdom of the minister’s wife, who’s caught between her somewhat prissy, but hopelessly sincere husband, and Eugene Marchbanks, a spoiled and histrionic upper class lad, the story has the tediousness of a period piece, with few of the redeeming virtues of the same. Jane Eyre (or Downton Abbey, for that matter) it’s not.
Some of the best lines of the evening belong to Liz Baltes, who plays Miss Proserpine “Prossy” Garnet. As the minister’s esteemed secretary, she’s disengaged enough from the others to provide insight into the others while traversing the distance from an acerbic wit to a genuine warmth, all the while protesting “I’m a beer teetotaller, not a champagne teetotaler.”
A Minister’s Wife will be at the San Jose Rep until July 14th. The music alone makes this one a real treasure. If you’re at all into late 19th century works, this is well-worth the time.