Stage Door Review

Just to Get Married

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

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by Cicely Hamilton, directed by Severn Thompson

Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

August 21-October 16, 2022

Georgiana: “What's to happen to me if I don't marry – what's to be the end of me?”

One of the great pleasures of the Shaw Festival is its pursuit of what former Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell called “literary archeology”. During his tenure as Artistic Director Christopher Newton rediscovered the works of Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946), St. John Hankin (1869-1909) and others. Newton’s remounts led to renewed interest in the playwrights back in Britain. During her tenure Jackie Maxwell uncovered the works of Githa Sowerby (1876-1970) and many other once forgotten female playwrights such as Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952), a radical feminist and suffragette, and her play Diana of Dobsons (1908).

In 2019 the Shaw Festival re-started the resurrection of forgotten plays by female playwrights with a middling production of Sex (1926) by Mae West (1893-1980) and an electrifying production of Trouble in Mind (1955) by Alice Childress (1916-94) in 2021. This year it continues the project with a second play by Cicely Hamilton, Just to Get Married from 1911, a play that after its premiere lay unaccountably unperformed until 2017. Married proves to be a more trenchant play than Diana since it cuts to the heart of the question of what the purpose of marriage is for women.

The play begins as what we think will be a drawing room comedy. Georgiana Vicary is 29, has no money and is living with her titled aunt. Her only hope of escape from eternal and begrudged dependancy is marriage. Fortunately for Georgie, as she is called, she has caught the eye of the wealthy Adam Lankester, who has inherited a fortune after living in Canada for the past 10 years. Georgie’s Aunt Catherine has invited Adam to stay at her country house with her and Georgie. Everyone has been waiting for Adam to propose. But it is now his last day there and he still has done nothing. Much humour derives from Georgie’s relatives contriving situations for the two to be alone and their disappointment when nothing happens. We suspect that while Georgie’s relatives do want her to find happiness, they are also eager to get her off their hands while she is still marketable.

The lightness of this introduction proves deceptive. Adam does finally propose to Georgie at the very last moment and Georgie does accept him, but even as she does so she begins to question her motives. Adam clearly adores Georgie, but she knows that she does not love him. Has she accepted him just because he is her only hope of not becoming a permanent burden on her family? She realizes with dismay that, unlike her friend Frances Melliship, a painter, she has no skills of any kind and has been raised “just to get married”.

The more the house fills with wedding gifts, the more Georgie feels society is compelling her to practice a terrible deception on a good, kind-hearted man who deserves someone who truly loves him. The closer the wedding day approaches, the more Georgie feels she can’t go through with it. From the middle of Act 2 right up to the conclusion Hamilton has us hanging on every word as we search for some way that Adam and Georgie, together or separately, can avoid disaster.

It is clear that Hamilton is underscoring how vital it is that women need education and financial independence to enter into non-mercenary marriages. But Hamilton’s play catches hold of us even in 2022 because entering into a bond of marriage is still a fearful thing, especially, as with Georgie, one partner feels she is abusing the trust and love of the other. Hamilton’s unjustly neglected play is still gripping because her portrayal of the psychology of uniting oneself to another is so real and so surprisingly modern.

While much of the world is acting as if Covid is “over”, the performance I attended of Just to get Married proved just the opposite. Of the ten cast members, two were sidelined because of Covid. Katherine Gauthier took on the role of Georgiana usually played by Kristi Frank, Nathan Judah took on the role of Uncle Theodore usually played by David Alan Anderson and Allison McCaughey took on the role of Bertha usually played by Katherine Gauthier. Such is the professionalism of the Shaw ensemble that if the substitutions had not been announced, one would never have suspected that this was not the usual cast.

Katherine Gauthier gives her best performance ever as Georgie. It’s a very difficult part since Georgie does want to get married but doesn’t figure out until almost too late why she is so uneasy about the institution in general. As first we, like all of Georgie’s relatives, think the problem is the extreme reticence of Adam, who apparently can’t get up courage enough to propose. When he finally does propose, Gauthier shows quite clearly that Georgie is not thrilled but rather overcome with objections she can’t yet name.

Hamilton’s depiction of a young woman who with no help manages to think herself out of the box she been placed in is a very daring strategy but it is also one of the features of the play that make it feel so modern. Gauthier shows us she is fully aware that Georgie is in the process of reaching for a higher level of awareness and that it is especially hard for Georgie since no one has ever encouraged her to consider her world from another perspective. Thus, it is a triumph when Georgie finally does realize what is wrong not just with marrying Adam but with her entire upbringing and with the expectations society has of her. Gauthier’s main flaw is that unlike the other women in the play, she has not learned the etiquette of the period has a tendency to use postures and facial expressions that are too contemporary.

This is Kristopher Bowman’s sixth season at the Shaw but I think this is the first time he has played a romantic lead. He is an excellent choice for Adam Lankester and is absolutely perfect in the role. Adam may be Hamilton’s vision of the “strong, silent type” of male, but even she makes fun of his silence. At first Bowman leaves Georgie’s relatives, and us, in doubt about whether he truly does fancy Georgie or not. Finally, after great effort when he does speak, we realize that this big, strong man who has been away from British society for 10 years and has never had to communicate his emotions has been too much in awe of Georgie to be able to voice his feelings.

Bowman immediately wins our sympathy and retains it to the end. When Georgie begins to have doubts about her worthiness of being worshipped by Adam and about a society that has never let her know who she is, we understand her point of view but we do wish she could recognize the unfeigned ardour of the man standing right in front of her. When Georgie deals Adam a hard blow, we admire the restraint and grace with which Bowman’s Adam takes it. In fact, the way Bowman has Adam accept rejection, with its mingling of sadness and respect, only show us, and indeed Georgie, how true Adam’s love really is.

Two older women are central to Georgie’s development. One his her aunt Lady Catherine Grayle played by Claire Jullien and the other is Lady Catherine’s friend Mrs. Macartney played by Monica Parks. Jullien plays Lady Catherine as the epitome of the world that has so hampered Georgie. Jullien emphasizes Lady Catherine’s notion that anyone who falls outside her narrow view of social duties and the roles of men and women will receive her utter contempt. Jullien is gives us a perfect portrait in Lady Catherine of a woman who feels it a virtue if women do not think for themselves.

In contrast, Parks’s Mrs. Macartney exudes warmth and compassion. In the great scene that Hamilton writes of Mrs. Macartney pleading with Georgie at the train station to reconsider her situation and return home, Parks’s Mrs. Macartney wins our sympathy more than does Georgie’s rebellion because Parks’s pleading is as rational as it is heart-felt. We understand that Georgie is in turmoil, but it is hard to see how anyone could not be grateful for all the understanding and affection that Mrs. Macartney shows her. As a side note, the marvellous actor Monica Parks displays a phenomenally wide range this season from the uneducated 285-year-old American wise woman of Gem of the Ocean to the supremely elegant and witty British Mrs. Macartney of Hamilton’s play. It is worth seeing both plays just to see her performances.

In smaller roles Hamilton gives the secondary men little to do whether Nathan Judah as Sir Theodore Grayle or Andrew Lawrie as Tod Grayle. It is interest, however, that Hamilton does not accuse the men as much as she accuses a woman like Lady Catherine for perpetuating the limited world that Georgie has grown up in. Meanwhile, the brief appearance of Georgie’s friend Frances Melliship played by Sophia Walker is meant to indicate that women do have a path to independence, if not wealth, if they have talent and the bravery to choose it. Hamilton does not have Frances say very much, but Walker’s wry looks and ironic smiles at the tizzy Lady Catherine and company are in over Georgie’s getting married say much more than words what Frances’s opinion is of these people.

Michael Gianfrancesco has created a clever set of walls covered with small framed doors – some opening on shelves, some closed. The set thus reflects the play’s world of restraint and the play’s theme of showing and concealing feelings. Ming Wong has dressed the women in, particularly Lady Catherine and Mrs. Macartney in gorgeously details gowns. That she puts Georgie from Act 2 onwards in a flowing culotte, or pantaloon skirt as it was called at the time, brings out the conflict within Georgie of what role she should take in life.

Severn Thompson has expertly directed this play and has found no need to add anything to it to bring out its modernity. She merely has asked the cast to play their parts with a thorough knowledge of the text and its historical context and to understand the psychological interactions of the characters. The result is a production which seems more like a modern play written about society in 1910 than so modern a play written in 1910.

This is exactly why the Shaw Festival’s “literary archeology” is so important. In today’s world where so few people understand the context of social and political events, it is increasingly important that we understand where certain ideas came from and that we are not the first to have these ideas. Just to Get Married may be about the institution of marriage in 1910 but it is just a valid a critique of marriage and the psychological joy and distress it may cause in 2022. With Just to Get Married the Shaw Festival has demonstrated yet again how important and invigorating it is to rescue fine works from undeserved obscurity.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Kristi Frank as Georgiana Vicary and Kristopher Bowman as Adam Lankester; David Alan Anderson as Sir Theodore Grayle, Kristopher Bowman as Adam Lankester, Andrew Lawrie as Tod Grayle, Claire Jullien as Lady Catherine Grayle, Kristi Frank as Georgiana Vicary, Monica Parks as Mrs. Macartney, Katherine Gauthier as Bertha Grayle and Sophia Walker as Frances Melliship; Kristopher Bowman as Adam Lankester and Kristi Frank as Georgiana Vicary; Kristi Frank as Georgiana Vicary and Monica Parks as Mrs. Macartney. © 2022 David Cooper.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.