Widowers’ Houses is, by Shaw’s own categorization, a “play unpleasant.”
No one on the stage is remotely likeable. Certainly not Blanche (Megan Trout), the spoiled young lady with a temper so violent that she beats her maid. Her on-and-off fiancé Trench (Dan Hoyle) is perpetually slack-jawed, a Bertie Wooster without the amusing scrapes. His friend Cokane (Michael Gene Sullivan) is no Jeeves, but rather a pompous and shallow man with an annoying habit of chuckling at himself. Blanche’s father Sartorius (Warren David Keith) makes his fortune as a slum landlord and jumps at investment propositions without consulting his conscience. You’d think his agent Lickcheese (Howard Swain) might have more scruples, but the pauper-turned-businessman proves even slimier than his (former) employer.
There are no easy answers in Shaw’s play, just as there aren’t in reality today.
When Trench and Blanche first become engaged, Sartorius worries that the newness and source of his money will cause Blanche to be rejected by Trench’s aristocratic relatives. That fear is assuaged—the family is happy to welcome a wealthy new member—but when Trench discovers the whole truth, he recoils at the thought of living on funds snatched from the mouths of the starving poor in exchange for dangerous and crowded lodgings. Sartorius gives him a hard lesson in the realities of business: it’s impossible to make slums “nice” while keeping rent cheap enough for tenants to pay.
Intermission and post-show projections of tent cities and Bay Area housing price data remind the audience that this same problem plagues us here and now. In a city with soaring rents, people resort to unsafe residences that don’t meet code. Are the landlords of such dwellings irresponsible villains, or helpful providers of semi-affordable rooms that keep people from homelessness? Sartorius points out that his real crime lies not in owning ramshackle tenement blocks but in being “powerless to alter the state of society.” Altering the houses themselves would only lead to gentrification of the slums. (Blanche applauds that option: “Why should we have the disgrace of harboring such wretches?”)
There are no easy answers in Shaw’s play, just as there aren’t in reality today. Because there’s nowhere to go, once the dilemma is posed and debated in the second act, much of the third feels superfluous. There’s no more ethical drama, and the resolution of the interpersonal drama is not decisive enough to satisfy. It’s clear that this is Shaw’s first play; later in his writing career, he got better at endings.
Aurora Theatre Company and director Joy Carlin mount an impressive production. Charming period sets by Kent Dorsey and I-want-to-steal-them-all-off-the-actors’-backs costumes by Callie Floor create a genteel atmosphere. Small details such as Blanche’s vicious nut-cracking, Trench’s series of embarrassed wordless noises, and the maid’s (Sarah Mitchell’s) final secret rebellion add levity. It’s not enough to make Shaw’s script great, but strong execution ensures that Widowers’ Houses is enjoyable despite its flaws.
Photo credit: David Allen