In Too True to Be Good, George Bernard Shaw turns the tables on his usual subject matter and examines the plight of the more-money-than brains set. While simultaneously pillorying the rich who religiously feed their young with thrice-daily meat rations and copious amounts of Doctor-dispensed green draughts for their never-ending “complaints” (real or imagined), he lets the great over-washed bleat out their woes: “… it was only by drinking and drugging—cocktails and cocaine—that I could endure my life.” But through his skillful characterization, beginning with the robbery-in-progress epiphany of a masked burglar (Blair Williams, who nearly steals the show to boot) “honesty is the best policy,” and culminating in the thief-as-preacher’s final sermon—which drives all other characters into the wings—one is left with the absolute certainty that it’s the “not unknown” playwright who utters every caustic word.
Under the watchful and savvy care of director Jim Mezon, the Shaw Festival’s production is a pleasant affair that manages to keep the wordy script moving forward, handling the few-and-far-between action sequences with aplomb. Best-in-show is Private Meek (Andrew Bunker—the epitome of the all-knowing soldier who runs the company while his Colonel dabbles in watercolours). His Act II one-man-army “attack of the maroons” (only a Wagner excerpt was missing)—where the unseen enemy is frightened off by deftly placed fireworks, leaving Her Majesty’s expedition unscathed and ready for tea and near silly-walk entries—are worth the price of admission alone.
William Vickers’ portrayal of The Monster (a.k.a. The Microbe) kicks off the production with a sickbed gurgling aria that provides the aural backdrop for the half-dozen bowler-hat “corps” that lifts and separates the forever-ailing, misery-personified patient (the monochromatic Nicole Underhay) from her centre-stage revolving bed. His medicine-matched-green string of body lights is just one of many subtle touches by production designer Kelly Wolf.
As The Patient’s Mother, Mary Haney, leads the female squad with convincing authority as she morphs from bewildered (she’s fed, ministered and coddled her other offspring into early graves) to besieged. It takes a common assault from Colonel Tallboys’ (Benedict Campbell, hilarious as a literal tea toterer, hen-pecked from afar, brigand inventor) sun umbrella to bring the matriarch to her senses. The result of that being a Mother/Daughter sisterhood pact (only from the mind of Shaw!) and a crowd-pleasing belly laugh as the hot-tempered KCB seeker utters “Pardon me. I apologized. I did not express my regret.”
Much of the opening act’s fun revolves around The Nurse (Kelli Fox—first-rate as a no-nonsense caregiver, but weakens the comedy considerably with her mid-Atlantic impersonation of a Countess that evokes the dying episodes of Gilligan’s Island) as she and The Burglar—armed with a society magazine illustrated feature of The Patient’s gems—convince the bedridden, measles beset (but—a miracle of makeup—only on the face) to join her intruders and escape into the simple life of servitude.(Her I Dream of Jeannie get-up completes the homage to escapist sitcoms of the 1960s.) Don’t miss the pearl-grab: a howler of a sight gag that works on many levels, not least of which is family-jewel envy!
Once the first act curtain falls, the rest of the journey has an uneven pace. As The Microbe states in his last gasp, “… the characters will discuss it at great length for two acts more.” Happily, another pair of actors await their cue until summoned for the final frame.
Norman Browning devours his role as The Elder. The atheist father of The Burglar is given an elevated pedestal from which to lecture his secretly ordained son and his partner in crime (and 10-day lover—a record!)—the former nurse and sometime regal faker. His science vs. religion theme is as long-winded as most vicars on Sunday, but what registers best, “My wife has died cursing me. I do not know how to live without her,” speaks the most wisdom, brilliantly reminding everyone that—after all is said, blessed or calculated—it’s really relationships that rise above position or power.
Graeme Somerville’s rendering of Sergeant Fielding gets under the skin of his lines, balances the career-soldier fortitude with a smouldering sexuality that first finds his equal then partner in Nurse’s final incarnation (faithful lover), while simultaneously reminding soldiers’ spouses everywhere that far away from home and in service to the “colours” a stiff upper lip can easily find new life and limb in the “middle.”
Shaw’s insights into human interaction and somewhat surprising thesis that the rich are just as miserable as the poor—preachy as it is—should be supped on and savoured by patrons from all economic backgrounds. A visit to the Court House Theatre’s pulpit is highly recommended, because—no matter which side of life’s ledger you frequent—your point of view is bound to surface—even if it’s too good to be true. JWR