Washington Stage Guild is a long-standing gem in the national capital’s sparkling theater scene. The repertory company was founded in 1986 in a derelict area of downtown Washington near the National Portrait Gallery. Traumatized by riots that swept through in 1968, the area was still dominated by empty spaces, boarded-up windows, and porn shops. Ford’s Theatre was nearby, but the Gaiety Burlesque house was a highpoint. Few tour buses lingered.
Today, the area has been gentrified by the city’s sports arena, excellent restaurants, and high-end international shops. Street life flourishes, and people live in what is now called “Penn Quarter.” The former slum has become one of Washington’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
Through it all, Washington Stage Guild has survived. A remarkable company of professional theatre artists, Stage Guild specializes in “eloquent plays of idea and argument, passion and wit—plays from all periods of world drama enacted by a classical ensemble with a contemporary sensibility.” (Quoted in Stage Guild theater program.)
This fall, they’ve launched their season with George Bernard Shaw’s rarely-performed first play, the 1892 Widowers’ Houses. At the time, Shaw was known as an essayist, journalist, and lecturer—but then Henrik Ibsen’s work entered his life. Shaw’s biographer Michael Holroyd explains that London productions of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Ghosts in the early 1890s had made Ibsen the playwright “forcing a whole generation to re-evaluate its ideas.” Shaw heard the call, and “assumed the generalship of the British campaign.” He turned to playwriting and joined Ibsen’s battle to crush conventional ideas that were blocking the march of modernism (Michael Holroyd, BERNARD SHAW, W.W.Norton & Co: NY, London, 1997. p.114).
Left: l to r- Michael Glenn, Scott Harrison, Lawrence Redmond (Sartorius)
Stage Guild artistic director Bill Largess explains that their patrons “have been marveling at Shaw’s prescience and topicality since our first season.” Their audiences delight in his wit and relish Shavian insights that still radiate with relevance today. (Stage Guild press release, online)
Shaw wrote Widowers’ Houses to spotlight a social issue that is particularly pertinent to downtown Washington’s current gentrification. The play revolves around a slumlord, Sartorius, who is raking in profits from blocks of tenements and maintaining a deaf ear to all pleas that he improve his tenants’ dire circumstances. If he spends money to improve their squalor, he argues, they won’t be able to stay because better living conditions will allow him to raise the rents and attract higher-paying tenants.
Stage Guild decided that Widowers’ House was “amazingly topical” in the gentrifying midst of Washington’s Penn Quarter today. In an interview, director Laura Giannarelli argued that Shaw’s plays “are eerily reflective of the current moment,” and that this play has particular relevance “to the acquisitive tenor of our times.”
Right: Madeleine Farrington, Lawrence Redmond
The play actually has a two-fold contemporary relevance: first, director Giannarelli explains that, as a long-time downtown DC resident, the company is “acutely aware of the development and gentrification that has brought high-rise luxury apartments and brand-names stores like Gucci….” The sidewalks no longer roll up at 5 p.m. when federal workers leave for home, and low-income residents have been displaced. The city itself exemplifies the real estate philosophy of the slumlord Sartorius and his associates.
Secondly, the play makes a more damning point about the ease of complicity. Around Sartorius are genial characters who consider themselves to be good people—and Shaw presents them in such a way that the audience agrees. One of the actors portrays a young doctor who falls in love with Sartorius’s daughter; madly in love, he overlooks her father’s predatory real estate dealings. The young doctor wants to marry the daughter, and proudly insists that they live on his paltry earnings. She is appalled—she revels in the spoiled life Sartorius has created for her. The doctor balks at Sartorius’s insistence that he continue funding her high life—until the slumlord points out that the young doctor himself is implicated in the very tenements at issue. The doctor owns the mortgage, and those “earnings” are what fund his own way of life. Trench exclaims, “Well, people who live in glass houses have no right to throw stones. But, on my honor, I never knew that my house was a glass one until you pointed it out.”
Left: Steven Carpenter as Lickcheese
In the end, the doctor agrees to Sartorius pumping funds into his marriage to the daughter. He also comes to “understand” why the tenements for which he holds the mortgage need to remain derelict. All are now enthusiastically complicit with the slumlord’s philosophy, thereby seeming to give the play a “happy ending.” Yet in Shavian terms, the idea is to confront the audience with itself: as director Giannarelli points out, Shaw wanted us to “see ourselves and our culture in these characters and leave the theatre considering the devil’s bargains we ourselves may have made” (Laura Giannarelli interview with AH, 10/12/17).
The cast is composed of many Stage Guild regulars. Vincent Clark plays Sartorius with decadent panache, and Scott Harrison convincingly portrays the slippery slide of Dr. Harry Trench. Madeleine Farrington’s Blanche well-conveys the pretty-but-spoiled-rotten daughter, though her upper register rampages border on shrillness.
Michael Glenn as William DuBurgh Cokane
The company’s next production will be an adaptation by artistic director Bill Largess of A Child’s Christmas in Wales & Other Stories, which will include works from Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens, AA Milne, and Louisa May Alcott. Performed November 24th through December 17th, this world premiere will focus on stories that “give us our idea of what Christmas should be.”
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
Washington Stage Guild information and tickets at http://www.stageguild.org or 240-582-0050.
Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery, and writes frequently on media and culture.