A Minister’s Wife is a modern musical adaptation (by Austin Pendleton) of George Bernard Shaw’s turn-of-the-century comedy Candida. The Celebration Company’s production of A Minister’s Wife, directed by Stephen Fiol, opened last Thursday at The Station in downtown Urbana. The play tells the story of Reverend James Morell (played by Timothy Renner), a long-winded and straight-laced Christian Socialist, and his rival — young, idealistic romantic poet Eugene Marchbanks (Lyle Jackson) — as the two men vie for the devotion of Candida (Marla Lynn Moore), the minister’s straying wife.
Flanking the love triangle is Prosperine “Prospy” Garnett (Ingrid Kammin), Morell’s shrewd secretary and Reverend Alexander Mill (Christopher Cayari), the bumbling curate. In a way, the triangle is more of a pentagon, as Prospy harbors a hidden schoolgirl crush on Morell, and Mr. Mill hero-worships his boss, openly imitating his body language and parroting his lines. While A Minister’s Wife asserts that Candida’s love is the secret to Morell’s success, the reverend thrives upon the admiration of his staff just as much as he depends upon Candida’s unending support.
And thus the revelation of Candida’s apparent betrayal catalyzes Morell’s slow undoing. The emotional barriers he constructs as the composed, rational patriarch are dissolved by the biting criticism of Candida’s lover, the impassioned poet Eugene, who aims to rescue Candida from the dullness of married life.
Eugene and Morell spend the whole play arguing with one another about who will be the best man for Candida. Candida herself gives no clues to her true intentions until the climax of the play. Moore plays the character with a devious smile and sugary sweet giggle, clearly enjoying her manipulative game and the fact that all the attention is being directed at her for once.
In a play that counterposes a poet and a lecturer, it is perhaps ironic that the storytelling aspect most lacking in A Minister’s Wife is the songbook (Music by Joshua Schmidt, Lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen). The songs are not particularly memorable, composed merely of dialogue set to song. And while the music conducted by Musical Director Aaron Kaplan is indeed lovely, I felt that the singing frequently bogged down the pacing of the action. While the narrative juxtaposes rhetoric and poetry, the musical adaptation misses the opportunity to engage metatheatrically with the conflict between lyrical and non-lyrical expressions of love.
That being said, with a minimal cast of only five characters, each performer holds his or her own. This cast expertly navigates between comedy and drama, landing both the laughable and the heartfelt — reason enough to spend an evening in Urbana contemplating Victorian notions of marriage and love.
A Minister’s Wife will run until June 20th. For reservations, please visit The Station Theatre’s official website.
Photos by Scott Wells.