Stage Door Review
The Shadow of a Doubt
Saturday, August 26, 2023
by Edith Wharton, directed by Peter Hinton-Davis
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
August 20-October 15, 2023
Lady Uske: “I don’t think anyone ever really knows another person”
The Shaw Festival has always been known for what Artistic Director Emerita Jackie Maxwell called its “literary archeology”, that is, in staging of unjustly neglected plays from the past. The Festival has often given the second-ever production of a rarity, such as His Majesty (1928) by Harley Granville Barker in 2002. With The Shadow of a Doubt, the Festival has gone even farther and given a 122-year-play its first-ever staging. (A radio adaptation had been broadcast on the BBC in 2018.)
The play was written in 1901 by American novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937), famed for such novels as The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911) and The Age of Innocence (1920). Two Wharton scholars, Laura Rattray and Mary Chinery, came across a newspaper that mentioned the play was in production, yet for unknown reasons the production never happened. They discover two typewritten copies of the script in 2016 at the University of Texas, filed not with the Wharton Archives but in a Playscripts and Promptbooks Collection.
The play turns out to be a fascinating document of its period, On stage it feels like a combination of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) and Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895), taking the theme of the necessity of trust between husband and wife from the first and the witty social commentary along with theme of blackmail from the second. The action of The Shadow of a Doubt is set in England and the controversial topic Wharton explores is active euthanasia, which was illegal in 1901 in England and the United States and still is.
When the play begins Kate has been married to John Derwent for two years and they have just returned from a year-long tour of the Continent. John’s first wife, Agnes, died as a consequence of a riding accident and Kate had been the attending nurse. Agnes is still idolized by her father Lord Osterleigh, who thinks it was unwise for John to have remarried so hastily and for him to have married a woman not only so far below him in rank but in every other virtue he feels Agnes possessed. Osterleigh is disturbed that such a woman as Kate should now be called “mother” by John and Agnes’s daughter Sylvia since, to his mind, Kate can in no way serve as a valid model of behaviour for the young girl. Nevertheless, John stands by Kate and Osterleigh does all he can to further John’s career.
In Act 1, when Kate is alone in the house, a strange man, Dr. Carruthers, enters the house to confront Kate. He was the attending physician when Kate was caring for Agnes. He moved to London in hopes of a position that did not materialize and has since become destitute. This has led him to blackmail Kate for the crime he believes she committed. He claims that Agnes’s condition was not fatal and that Kate committed active euthanasia in hopes of winning John and the life of an upper-class woman.
The confrontation between Kate and Carruthers is interrupted by none other than John. Here Wharton moves the plot in a very unexpected direction. Carruthers reveals his accusations to John and Kate does not deny that she helped Agnes to die with an overdose of chloroform. Kate believed Agnes’s injury was fatal and knew that Agnes, her best friend, was in excruciating pain. Kate asks John to choose between Carruthers’ version of events and hers. From this point on the question of John’s trust of Kate increasingly dominates the play.
My general view, expressed in numerous reviews, is that when presenting an older play or an opera to an audience who likely (or certainly) has never seen it before, a director’s duty should be to present the work as clearly as possible. With The Shadow of a Doubt it is a great pity that Peter Hinton-Davis should have been chosen as director since he is far too inclined to clutter a work with his own ideas rather than clarifying the text. That was true with Mae West’s play Sex (1926) in 2019 and it is true now.
In The Shadow of a Doubt Hinton-Davis throws various ideas at the production, none of which cohere or make the play more understandable. When you enter the Royal George theatre your ears are assaulted with what seems to be the soundtrack of a television biography of Edith Wharton. Since, as usual, almost the entire audience is talking, you can’t hear clearly what is being said in the documentary. So what is the point?
As we approach curtain time (there is no curtain), we see Claire Jullien dressed as the maid Wilson enter followed by the assistant stage manager decked out with a wired headset microphone. After some peremptory adjusting of chairs, the ASM and Jullien stand in conversation until the ASM gets the signal to leave. Something similar happens at the start of Act 2 with the ASM and Lindsay Wu as Clodagh Nevil. This is the old technique of showing us the theatre as a theatre by beginning the action before the action of the play begins. Most people in the audience will have understood that they are going to see a playing by having purchased a ticket. And since when do ASMs lounge about the stage chatting with actors who should be preparing for their roles?
By this time we will have noticed the video cameras placed in the four corners of Gillian Gallow’s dark, wooden-panelled set. Hinton-Davis makes little use of the live video managed by Haui (aka Howard J. Davis) except to project images of characters speaking or moving onto the surface of the dark back wall where the images can’t be seen well. In Act 3, however, Hinton-Davis makes up for this neglect by having actors speak directly facing the cameras, rather than each other, so their brightly lit faces can be shown on the back wall.
The most bizarre instance is of Claire Jullien sitting down looking like Whistler’s Mother facing stage right, while the projection of her face fills the back wall. Unaccountably, Jullien, still clad as the maid, begins speaking the words of another character. Has the maid become the other character? Is she merely possessed by the other character? Who knows? Later a metal ring that Bonnie Beecher has lit to look like a circular lighting fixture descends to the ground surrounding Osterleigh. So this symbolizes what exactly – that Osterleigh is caught in a ring of truth?
The main problem is that Act 3 is the most complex of the play’s three acts and we really need to concentrate on what the characters are saying. All these tricks by Hinton-Davis do everything to distract us from what is being said, and it is not surprising that the conclusion comes across as murky rather than as the revelation Wharton must have intended.
Gripping performances could help makes us ignore all this directorial tomfoolery, but that is not always the case. Katherine Gaulthier, who did so well stepping into a part at the last minute in Just to Get Married last year, seems out of her depth as Kate. Partially, this is because Hinton-Davis hasn’t quite decided whether the play is a mystery or a thriller (it is neither), and partially it is because the role Wharton has written is extremely difficult. It relies on levels of nuance that Gaulthier does not have at her command. Kate is the only consistently truthful character in the entire play. Yet, she is constantly being criticized and doubted. The actor playing Kate must demonstrate to us that she is confident that she is right even when she is being rebuffed and can say nothing. Everything Kate does must look like an honest gesture not a ploy. This is necessary since Wharton sets Kate up as the prime counterexample to the corrupt world around her.
As Kate’s husband John, André Morin also needs to bring greater nuance to his portrayal. John’s profession is dependent on the favour of Lord Osterleigh, but John’s personal happiness is dependent on Kate. Osterleigh’s dislike of Kate already places John in a precarious situation and the news of a possible scandal involving Kate makes the situation worse. Morin plays John with such calm you wouldn’t know how difficult his position is. This inner conflict is what Morin needs to bring out so that we understand better his actions toward Kate and hers towards him.
Fortunately, Gaulthier and Morin are surrounded by actors who know precisely what their characters are about. Chief among these is Patrick Galligan as Lord Osterleigh. Galligan plays Osterleigh as cold and imperious. His idolizing Agnes might appear as a virtue if it did not also mean the degrading of Kate. Osterleigh claims to do everything for the sake of Sylvia, but Galligan makes it looks more like an excuse to seize control of her himself. Fine actor that he is, Galligan also makes Osterleigh’s last-minute conversion to Kate’s cause so believable he leads us to think the old man’s heart may be broken.
Damien Atkins’s portrayal of Dr. Carruthers is quite disturbing in its mixture of shyness, boldness and exhaustion. Atkins painfully depicts a man whom poverty as driven not merely to blackmail but to the brink of insanity. In fact, Atkins leads us to think that Carruthers recent spate of bad luck may have caused him to misremember past events.
The one bright light amid the gathering gloom of the play is the playful Lady Uske of Tara Rosling. Her place in the play is as the woman Lord Osterleigh could have married. She is still willing to entertain a rapprochement and he is willing to flirt with her, which shows that he might have been quite a different person if he had married her as she wished so many years ago. Wharton gives her a Wildean epigrammatic wit and a gift for amusing contradiction which Rosling plays with utter aplomb.
In contrast to the serious problems of John and Kate, Wharton gives us one of Kate’s friends Clodagh Nevil, given a sprightly performance by Lindsay Wu, and her would-be fiancé Robert Mazaret, played as a pompous dandy by Taurian Teelucksingh. The fact that Clodagh is having an affair even while encouraging Robert only highlights Kate’s moral steadfastness. The same is true of the richly comic portrait of Lord Uske by Neil Barclay, an older man who has no idea he bores the very women he tries to impress.
Kate’s self-martyrdom for the sake of loyalty to Agnes may seem rather extreme for a modern audience even though Wharton intends it to represent the only relationship untinged by lies in the entire play. It will be very interesting to see if the Shaw production sparks another production elsewhere, one hopes without all the directorial tricks of this and with stronger leads. The Shadow of a Doubt clearly falls in line with Wharton’s other scathing critiques of upper-class society. Since this production does it no favours, only another, more closely focussed on the characters, will tell whether the play really has been unjustly neglected or not.
Photos: André Morin as John and Katherine Gaulthier as Kate; Patrick Galligan as Lord Osterleigh, Tara Rosling as Lady Uske, André Morin as John and Katherine Gaulthier as Kate; Katherine Gaulthier as Kate, Patrick Galligan as Lord Osterleigh and Claire Jullien as Wilson; André Morin as John and Katherine Gaulthier as Kate. © 2023 David Cooper.
For tickets visit: www.shawfest.com