“Dear Liar” is the delightful story of the charming and volatile 40-year relationship between playwright George Bernard Shaw and the woman for hom he wrote the role of Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalian,” an actress who went by the name of Mrs. Patrick (Stella) Campbell, one of the most popular actresses of her day. Campbell was 49 years old when she played the teenage Eliza in 1914.
Glenn Wall and Mrs. Stephen Doyle (her preferred stage name) play Shaw and Campbell with spirit and style, assertiveness and vulnerability in otuit Center for the Arts’ Black Box production of the show. They share their lives and relationships, while providing insights into British and US society from the 1899 through the onset of World War II.
The show, creatively directed by Laura Garner of Wits End (Really Lively) Arts, runs through November 11, with performances Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM.
The comedy-drama was written by Jerome Kilty, an actor, playwright, and devotee of the works of Shaw, based on the correspondence between Shaw and Campbell. Some of the letters were published in Mrs. Campbell’s autobiography, but most came to light only after her death, in 1940, when they were found in a hatbox underneath her bed.
The set is gorgeous, richly decorated in shades of peaches and corals, wood tones and the crisp white of the bookcases, full of books, photographs, and memorabilia. The set is quite an achievement, especially considering the “stage” is so small in the Black Box. Serene classical piano music is heard before the play begins, adding a touch of elegance. Doyle’s gowns are stunning, beautifully evoking the changing time periods.
The language is intelligent and eloquent—from tender love letters to witty comments on life and death, the theater and Hollywood. Shaw had a way with words: he tells Campbell that she “would tear the strings out of an archangel’s harp to tie up parcels.” But Campbell was articulate too, especially in her response to Shaw’s verbosity, describing his writing as “glamorous long sentences of yours which, when I reach the end, have to start all over again to get my brain in balance.”
Kilty uses not only the words in the letters, in the play, but fashions his own authentic-sounding dialogue in the spirit of Shaw and Campbell. Kilty was an actor himself (he died at 92 in September), and it is said that he had roles in nearly every one of Shaw’s plays.
What make the play so rewarding is the high quality of the acting by both Wall and Doyle. Their accents are just right, and their portrayal of their characters is convincing. Wall is particularly effective and eloquent in his moving portrayal of Shaw’s response to war and its impacts.
This is not a show in which the actors sit and read their letters to each other. None of the letters are read—they are spoken from the heart, throughout. Wall and Doyle begin by talking directly to the audience, explaining the premise of the play, in a helpful and natural way.
Reflecting on the eventual death of Campbell, Wall/Shaw says “Everyone is greatly relieved as she could not live in the real world. Still she was an enchantress.” Shaw fell “head over heels” in love with her within 30 seconds of meeting her, though he never left his wife, Charlotte, for whom Shaw’s affairs were “an unfailing amusement.”
Act 1 ends with a reenactment of a rehearsal for “Pygmalion,” during which Doyle as Campbell as Eliza utters some wonderfully agonized cries when she drops her violets. The play was a huge success in England, but failed to attract as much attention in the US, we are told, as Americans tended to think it was too “highbrow,” and were disappointed not to hear the word “Pygmalion” uttered during the play.
Don’t make the same mistake—this is a delightful play, visually and aurally beautiful, abounding with wit and intellect.
Tickets are $12 and may be purchased at artsonthecape.org or by calling 508-428-0669.
Cotuit Center for the Arts is at 4404 Route 28 in Cotuit. For more information, visit artsonthecape.org.