Letter Perfect

The great English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell was nearly fifty years old when she created the role of Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's most famous play, Pygmalion. And even though Campbell's acclaimed swan song marked the beginning of her somewhat ignoble decline (upon visiting the grand dame in New York City near the end of her life, John Gielgud was reportedly horrified to find "Mrs. Pat" in the squalor of a transient hotel), Shaw's star was just beginning to rise on the British theatrical horizon.

Of course, the 1914 London premiere of Pygmalion, which firmly established Shaw's reputation as England's greatest living dramatist, wasn't the only time that Mrs. Pat and her greatest admirer found themselves on both sides of an ever-shifting dynamic. In fact, Campbell and Shaw maintained a prickly, flirtatious correspondence that began at the turn of the century, when Mrs. Pat reigned supreme as the English theater's leading lady and Shaw was slowly gaining notice as an itinerant drama critic. That correspondence continued, interrupted only by a few periods of petulant silence between the would-be lovers, until Campbell's death in 1940. The couple's surviving letters have been adapted by American actor and director Jerome Kilty into a two-character play, Dear Liar, which is currently being presented by Germinal Stage Denver and which features the husband-and-wife team of Ed Baierlein (as the irascible Irishman who bluntly signed his missives "G.B.S.") and Sallie Diamond (as the charming Englishwoman whose letters ended simply with her middle name, "Stella").

Smoothly directed by Baierlein (who also designed the production), the enjoyable two-hour production chronicles Shaw and Campbell's mercurial relationship from its early stages of genuine and tender affection to its last moments of mutual though measured respect. The actors read many of the letters while sitting at two small desks on either side of the small stage, meeting for an occasional tete-a-tete on an embroidered settee located downstage center. As the play unfolds, we're treated to several of Shaw's witticisms, such as when Baierlein humorously describes Shaw's dream about Voltaire and Shakespeare, a pair of overrated cowards (in the mind of G.B.S., anyway) who deftly maneuvered through the side streets of playwrighting in order to avoid running into Joan of Arc, the unlikely (and, in Shakespeare's day, unpopular) war hero immortalized in Shaw's brilliant St. Joan. We're also permitted access to a few of Campbell's tender, endearing responses to Shaw's rhapsodic love notes, such as when Diamond quietly intones, "Oh, Joey, if I could write letters like yours, I'd write them to God."

To their credit, Baierlein and Diamond keep the action moving at a comfortable clip but never fall prey to the amateur's tendency to substitute speed of delivery for effective pacing. This is especially true during episodes that require the performers to communicate unarticulated, subtle desires. For instance, when the two debate Shaw's business proposition that Campbell appear on stage as the sole star of Pygmalion, Diamond and Baierlein manage to convey Campbell and Shaw's underlying affection for each other by way of carefully choreographed body language. As a result, Shaw's subsequent remark to Campbell, "All I ask is to have my own way in everything," becomes a moment of honest-to-goodness humor that bespeaks a theatrical match made in heaven--where, judging from the tone of this mildly amusing production, the epistolary love affair between Stella and G.B.S. is no doubt still going on.

--Lillie

Dear Liar, through July 12 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 455-7108.

 
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