The Shaw Festival once again has earned high marks for its choice of plays. The Shadow of a Doubt is a play by Eith Wharton that was written in 1901 and never staged. In fact, it was stored with Wharton’s papers and disappeared from sight until 2016 when two academics discovered it. No one jumped for joy and rushed to produce it. The Shaw Festival has and we owe a debt of gratitude to it for letting us see Wharton’s only completed play.
Now for the reality check. The lights go on in the Royal George Theatre and we see a dark, wood panelled room and a woman looking out of a window. We hear a song and the woman stares out the window for a long time. The play finally starts but there is no rush to get on with the plot. The song will return and some heavy-duty cello playing will keep us unamused for what seemed like long stretches.
There is a plot. Kate Derwent (Katherine Gauthier) is married to John Derwent (Andre Morin) who has a daughter, Sylvia, from his marriage to the late Agnes. We are in London in 1901 and we should get the class structure straight. We are in Lord Osterleigh’s house and Agnes was his daughter. Mark them as aristocrats in the top rung of the social ladder. Kate was a nurse, therefore mark her at the bottom of the social ladder. This is critical.
Lord Osterleigh has two issues. First, he cannot get over his daughter’s death even after two years and second, he cannot accept that his ambitions son-in-law John has succumbed to marrying a woman of such low social standing.
John and Kate love each other. But a highly distressed Dr Carruthers (Damien Atkins) comes trying to blackmail Kate into giving him money or some of her jewellery. He is a man in despair who knows that Kate gave Agnes chloroform and caused or hastened Agnes’ death. Did she? Did she do it to alleviate pain and suffering when death was inevitable? Was this euthanasia or just plain murder? Keep your seatbelt on.
It will take about a year and a half and numerous side trips to reach the end of the saga. The play has a dozen characters and after Lord Osterleigh’s drawing room, we go the the Derwent’s’ house on the Thames and finally to a small room in a lodging house. The dark, badly lit panelling will remain essentially the same and with some exceptions dark clothing will be worn by almost everybody. The set and the atmosphere are almost oppressive.
Most of the characters are entitled to some amorous pursuits. Michael Man plays Captain Dullaston and with his long hair and ridiculous uniform I have no idea what he is Captain of. Dullaston, Robert Mazaret, (Richard Lam) and Clodagh (Lindsay Wu) are having affairs. John is sent to China on a diplomatic job for a year and he leaves his daughter with his father-in-law Osterleigh. Kate is left to fend for herself and the shadow of a doubt follows her. Did nurse Kate have a nefarious hand in the death of Agnes? Even John has doubts and she is in a a terrible situation of trying to maintain her pride and defending her innocence.
Aside from the songs and the dreary background cello playing, even during dialogues, there are a few other bizarre aspects. Director Peter Hinton-Davis projects the faces of some characters at the back of the stage, at times for a short while at other times for a whole scene. We see the faces of Kate, Osterleigh and the maid Wilkins (Claire Julien) for lengthy periods. Why the maid? No doubt to arouse suspense as if this were an Alfred Hitchcock movie. That like almost everything else in the play, does not work.
Hinton-Davis lets a creaky play drag interminably and his attempts to create suspense, even interest in the play fail. There is not much he could do about the play but it felt as if he made it worse if that were possible.
The performance that I saw on August 30th had other problems. Lord Osterleigh usually played by Patrick Galligan was performed by Neil Barclay. He is listed in the program as the understudy for the role but he had not learned his lines and walked around with the script in his hand and frequently read from it. Richard Lam, Michael Man and David Adams were replacing the original cast members but they did not need to carry a copy of the script on stage. I mention this for the record and I am not suggesting that the changes had a dramatic effect on the performance.
Katherine Gauthier gave a bravura performance as Kate Derwent. Her Kate had enormous challenges. She was and wanted to succeed as a loving wife, the stepmother of her husband’s daughter, the target of a brutal extortionist and the victim of a class-ridden structure that would not accept her. That is an huge emotional range and she handled it splendidly.
Another limitation was the atrocious English accents produced by virtually the entire cast. English aristocrats speak in a distinct way and it is part of their snobbishness to do so. The actors sounded like what they are: Canadian actors making a feeble attempt at an English accent by dropping the r or trying to slide off it. It did not work.
Thank you for producing Edith Wharton’s play. We may not get another chance to see it.
The Shadow of a Doubt by Edith Wharton continues on selected dates until October 15, 2023, at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.