In its latest production, Aurora Theatre dives into issues of gentrification and exploitation via George Bernard Shaw’s satire, “Widowers’ Houses.” This play directed by Joy Carlin is a straightforward and traditional rendition of the famed Irish playwright’s 1892 work.
A young doctor named Harry Trench (Dan Hoyle) falls in love with Blanche (Megan Trout) whose father Sartorius (Warren David Keith) is revealed to have gained his wealth by exploiting the poor as a slum landlord. The story tackles the disparity between classes and the dubious morality of those who are better off.
Stunning costumes and set design match the play’s 19th-century setting. However, it is the performances that truly elevate this captivating production. The actors’ portrayals build up to their complete potential, the initial slow pacing picks up to a steady level, and the handling of the stage space — initially awkward and forced — becomes efficiently utilized.
The group dynamic of the ensemble cast is the play’s greatest strength, but some of the actors shine more than others. Hoyle, despite having the lead role of Dr. Trench, gives an enthusiastic performance, but he is easily overlooked in favor of some of his counterparts’ much stronger performances. Hoyle’s wavering British accent certainly doesn’t help matters.
In contrast, Mitchell’s vibrant performance in the supporting role of the family’s maid, though limited, was particularly memorable. The majority of the maid’s scenes are with Blanche, who is particularly notable both in these scenes and in the play’s entirety. Blanche begins as a seemingly passive character whose relevance exists only in relation to either her love interest or her father. Instead, she is revealed to be a strong, temperamental yet intelligent character who not only holds her own in group scenes, but stands out among them.
Blanche’s place in the plot is pulled along through the actions of Trench and Sartorius, yet, despite not being able to take action herself, she makes what she wants clear and stands firm in her desires. And, while she is often kept out of the loop, she gets the information that she needs in resourceful ways. Trout takes on this character seamlessly, portraying Blanche — who is defined amongst the characters by her temper — as a compelling, sympathetic and likable character.
Sartorius, like his daughter, turns out to be much more complex and interesting than originally presented. As a character who initially seems quite dull and forgettable, his turn into a layered, villain-like, manipulative yet caring individual is both unexpected and incredibly fascinating to witness.
In the second act, the audience discovers that Sartorius has gained his wealth by renting slum housing with unreasonably high prices. When Trench finds this out, he is immediately repulsed by the actions of his future father-in law. Yet, we see that Trench also benefits financially from Sartorius’ exploitation, thus blurring the line between good and evil.
Given the strength of the actors, what the production does best is effectively portray tension between characters. The second act is filled with tension, driven by confrontations and arguments between characters with dark secrets coming to light. A conversation between the newly engaged Blanche and Trench rises to an argument in a moment that showcases their deep understanding of their characters, displaying their strongest instance of chemistry.
The chemistry throughout the play results in palpable tension, most evident in a scene of more subtle tension when Blanche and Sartorius are conversing from opposite sides of the study, both not quite saying what they mean yet clearly demonstrating the strain between them. The level of sustained tension varies but is handled successfully on every degree.
Ultimately, “Widowers’ Houses” tackles several issues and topics, but at its core, the play is a look into the lives of the individuals who comprise a skewed class system. These characters’ wealth is examined and critiqued in relation to society as a whole. In turn, the audience gets to witness how the wealthy stay wealthy and contemplate the lack of resolution for this ongoing issue, even more than a century later.
“Widowers’ Houses” is currently playing at Aurora Theatre through March 4.