Captivating ‘Pygmalion’ triumphs at Remy Bumppo

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Nick Sandys (left) is Professor Henry Higgins and Kelsey Brennan is Eliza Doolittle in the Remy Bumppo production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Here’s a question for you: What happens in the relationship between phonetics professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl he helped to transform into “a proper lady” after the curtain goes down? It’s a question that lingers in the air whether you are considering George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play, “Pygmalion,” or “My Fair Lady,” the 1956 Lerner and Loewe musical that so brilliantly amplified Shaw’s look at social class, the eternal war between the sexes and (to quote Eliza’s endlessly quotable dad, Alfred P. Doolittle), the curse of “middle-class morality.”

‘PYGMALION’ Highly recommended When: Through Jan. 8, 2017 Where: Remy Bumppo at the Greenhouse Theater Center,2257 N. Lincoln Tickets: $47.50 – $52.50 Info: Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission

Some say Eliza will marry the sweet but inept and penniless aristocrat, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and, as Higgins predicts, live to regret it. Others, with a more romantic streak, believe she might ultimately marry Higgins, the confirmed bachelor who suddenly realizes he has become “accustomed to her face.” Or perhaps she might just stay on at Wimpole Street and become his “teaching assistant.”

The truth is, the ending is ambiguous (and Shaw wanted it that way). And this ambiguity is intriguingly amplified — without the addition of any dialogue — in director Shawn Douglass’ production of “Pygmalion” for the Remy Bumppo theater company.

Nick Sandys (left) is Henry Higgins and David Darlow is Alfred P. Dolittle in the Remy Bumppo theater company production of “Pygmalion.” (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Nick Sandys (left) is Henry Higgins and David Darlow is Alfred P. Dolittle in the Remy Bumppo theater company production of “Pygmalion.” (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Douglass (working on the minimalist, “in the square” stage configuration of Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s set) has devised a clever framing device that continues the line of questioning. As the play opens, we see a couple of movers in brown work uniforms wheeling out some large trunks, along with a rather prim, unsmiling, middle-aged English woman who clearly has come to take a last look at the study in which Higgins did his teaching. Little emotion passes over her face. In fact, she is quite the stoic.

Elizabeth, as she is called in the program (played by Jane deLaubenfels), is clearly Eliza about 20 or more years “down the road.” What has actually happened to Higgins is left to the imagination. As for Eliza, it appears she very probably did not marry Higgins, certainly never lived the life of the “duchess” she passed for years earlier, and probably hasn’t been terribly happy. She is simply ordinary.

There is, however, absolutely nothing ordinary about Shaw’s play. It remains as verbally sparkling, provocative, touching and hilarious as ever, with a remarkable mix of misogyny and proto-feminism at its core, and an overall appraisal of human nature and social mobility that still rings true.

Nick Sandys, Remy Bumppo’s artistic director — and this production’s Henry Higgins — was made for the role. An Englishman born and bred, he demonstrated his mastery beyond any doubt when he starred in last summer’s Light Opera Works production of “My Fair Lady,” and rendered both the songs and dialogue to bristling perfection. Now he is playing the maddeningly charming misogynist once again, and while there are no songs this time around, there is plenty of music in the language of the play itself.  (I must admit I miss the splendid scene from the musical in which the actual grueling teaching process is dramatized.)

Annabel Armour plays Mrs. Higgins in the Remy Bumppo production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Annabel Armour plays Mrs. Higgins in the Remy Bumppo production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Kelsey Brennan’s Eliza is a sharper, savvier Eliza than many. The play doesn’t quite suggest the gradual steps in her transformation or show her triumph “at the ball” as is done in the musical. But with her glittering eyes and exaggerated body language Brennan brings great comic punch to the scene of an afternoon gathering at the home of Higgins’ irrepressible, no-nonsense, ever-insightful mother (the peerless Annabel Armour is sensational in this role, and easily suggests why Higgins expects so much of women). And Eliza’s pained fury with Higgins, who ultimately brushes off her success with comments about his own exhaustion at the whole ordeal of testing her in high society, is played with fire.

David Darlow’s portrayal of Alfred P. Doolittle — the dustman and natural-born philosopher who finds unwanted (but unshakeable) success on the lecture circuit is priceless, as are Shaw’s observations about “the undeserving poor” versus the strivers of this world. And there are winning turns by Peter A. Davis (as  Higgins’ friend and fellow bachelor, Colonel Pickering, the understated colonial gentleman with fine manners), and by Laurie Larson as Higgins’ unflappable housekeeper, who worries about Eliza’s future  from the start. Joanna Riopelle, Eliza Helm and the ideally hapless Kyle Curry suggest the English upper crust family that has lost its fortune but tries desperately to hold on to the affectations of its class.

More than anything, as you leave “Pygmalion” you might find yourself wishing Shaw were still alive to provide his unique brand of social and political commentary.

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