Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Shaw's "The Stepmother" - What Every Banker Knows

Patrick Galligan
The Stepmother - Patrick Galligan

Githa Sowerby 's Rutherford and Son , directed by Jackie Maxwell with sure-handed veteran Michael Ball in the lead role in the NOTL 2004 production, was a treat. Four years later, Maxwell delights again with the "premiere" of another Sowerby drama, 1924's The Stepmother, not produced in eighty-four years, a primal dig that strikes directly at the heart of gender power issues. As young investigative Watergate reporters, Woodworth ad Bernstein, were well advised by Deep Throat, "follow the money!" That's precisely what Sowerby and Maxwell relentlessly accomplish, demonstrating the mean economic bondage women are delivered into within the blissful state of matrimony.

Therapists happily inform us that most marital problems centre on money issues: who controls it, how it's doled out, and with what priorities. Cash is king and the proverbial root of all evil as evidenced daily from a military-industrial complex that amasses fortunes by killing people, preferably those in foreign lands. Money will always provide incentive for questionable unions, (Tony Blair & George Bush) with or without pre-nuptial agreements, a theme focused on in Getting Married also appearing this season at Shaw.

Sowerby's premise is a decided twist on the 'wicked stepmother' theme popularized by Cinderella. Hubby is the problem. Lois (Claire Jullien) is married to the quintessential scoundrel, Eustace Gaydon (Blair Williams), whose slippery fingers can't hang on to money, much to the chagrin of everyone except Lois who blindly entrusts him with her inheritance and business profits. When stepdaughter Monica (Marla McLean) begs to marry, presto; Pandora's Box opens with a nasty flourish.

Blair Williams nails his part with relish. The audience is torn at the curtain between cheering and booing, so convincingly he plays his role. Think Richard Nixon - "I am not a crook" - but with the oratorical, bombastic exuberance of Lord Black who had displayed both nerve and unrepentant egoism recently by suggesting in a column that he was merely staying as "a guest" of the U.S. Williams is the sort of villain who gleefully ties a heroine to the railroad tracks and gets visibly impatient if the train is behind schedule.

Fanny, Eustace's sister, dies at the start of the play, and when Mr. Bennet, (Guy Bannerman) the solicitor, arrives - like Vancouver Mounties who overreach their mandate, he stuns Eustace not with electricity but the fact that Fanny has left everything to Lois, a young woman Fanny adopted. Lois wins the lottery by inheriting Fanny's fortune, but Eustace is already a few steps ahead.

Accordingly, ten years later, as the world turns in rhythm to mythic melodrama, Lois is now Mrs. Eustace Gaydon. Inherited daughters, Monica and Betty (Robin Eva Williams) are young women who refer to Lois as "mother," and Lois works hard running Ginevras, a successful dress-making store. Monica, the eldest, is engaged to Cyril Bennet (Jesse Martyn), son of the solicitor, and needs permission to marry. Alas, poor Cyril doesn't make enough money for them to live on; thus, marriage depends upon supplements from Eustace and Lois.

When Lois asks about her assets, Eustace is condescendingly evasive. "My dear girl - how long do you suppose it would take to go into every investment I've made for you? Besides we're discussing Monica's marriage - do let us stick to the point." Responding to this Bill O'Reilly aggressive, nonsensical rhetoric, Lois counters: "If only you'd tell me how I stand. You don't know what it's like for me to go on working in the dark, spending everything I make, as I make it. The audience is inclined to pull out their hankies with sad thoughts of the movie, Cool Hand Luke and Paul Newman: "What we have here is a failure to communicate," aka strike number two in a doomed marriage, destined to go down swinging.

Eustace says that if she ever needs money, he will happily provide it. (The audience collectively wants to scream: "Get that in writing, sweetie!") Then, he departs on a Willy Loman type business trip.

When Peter (Patrick Galligan), Lois' sympathetic and infatuated neighbour, pops over to discuss the situation with Bennet Sr., we learn that Eustace's situation is grimmer than Lois might imagine. To complicate matters, Lois and Peter share a few secrets of their own. It's Family Feud meets Texas Hold 'Em and again, Sowerby employs Peter to demonstrate the gender power of money (via Peter's mortgage on Ginevras). Although Peter is everything that Eustace is not, and Galligan becomes our hero in a confrontation, nevertheless, one suspects that if one did not possess Jullien's fine features, Peter's ardour might cool quickly. The old rhubarb - a woman is identified through her body, a man through his mind.

Claire Jullien was lured to Shaw this season from Stratford where I witnessed her grow over the years into complex parts. Perhaps drawing upon her Cordelia role in Lear, she is superb as a high-minded yet trapped woman who resolutely nourishes two daughters while simultaneously running a business and making up for her wayward husband. Her face mirrors chronic strain, but she displays a determined dignity, constantly challenged yet never displaced.

In the end, Nixon's henchman, Henry Kissinger , maintained that power was the ultimate aphrodisiac, but it is every banker who knows the true source of power. Just ask Hillary Clinton who probably borrowed a few bucks from Bill in the last few months.

Blair Williams   Claire Jullien   Guy Bannerman   Jesse Martyn   Marla McLean

The Stepmother is directed by Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, with set design by Camellia Koo, costume design by William Schmuck and lighting design by Louise Guinand. The stage management team includes Stage Manager Alison Peddie and Assistant Stage Manager Eamonn Reil. A strong cast includes Beryl Bain, Jesse Martyn, Jonathan Widdifield, Robin Evan Willis and Jenny L. Wright. It runs Friday, May 23 to Saturday, October 4.

Michael Ball
The Stepmother - Michael Ball

The stepmother - interviews with Sam Walters and cast

1st Day of Rehearsal: Rutherford and Son at the Mint Theater

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