George Bernard Shaw’s classic satire Pygmalion celebrates its one hundredth birthday this year and this joint production from Stage Left and BoHo give it the party that it deserves.
I’m a lifelong fan of the famous musical adaptation, My Fair Lady. This is the first time I’ve seen the straight version onstage. I thought I would miss the songs but it turns out Shaw’s dialogue is musical enough, especially when spoken by this superb cast.
Mouzam Makkar plays the famous Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. Vainglorious phoneticist Henry Higgins (Steve O’Connell) bets his colleague Pickering (Sandy Elias) that he can teach this “guttersnipe” how to speak upper class English and pass her off as a duchess at a garden party in a matter of months.
The game is a cruel one, and Higgins is indeed a cruel man, but there’s a nobler side to the experiment. Higgins, and Shaw, are subtly contemptuous of the idea that class is a matter of blood or divine will. They know that it’s a matter of training, and anyone can learn if they’re sufficiently dedicated.
Makkar does a fine job throughout but her best work is at the beginning, when she courageously plays the pain of a lifetime of being casually dismissed for being poor. O’Connell succeeds in the daunting feat of both embodying the character near perfectly while imitating its most iconic avatar, Rex Harrison, not a jot
Director Vance Smith assembles a deep bench of talent for this show. Mark Pracht, often a leading man on Chicago stages, steals the show as Eliza’s father, a proletarian philosopher who discourses hilariously on the subject of middle class morality. Lisa Herceg is Higgins’ mother, the closest thing the show has to a conscience. When Henry behaves most outrageously, his mother slaps him down with a furious moral gravitas. You don’t want Lisa Herceg mad at you. Ever.
Pygmalion’s big ideas and big emotions are in good hands with this production.