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At the Shaw Festival

Fiona Reid as Lady Denison and Julia Course as Margery in The Chrity that Began at Home. (photo by David Cooper)

The Charity that Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists

Each year when the Shaw Festival announces its season, I quickly scan the lineup for plays I have never seen before. I trust the play selection at the Shaw implicitly and depend upon artistic director Jackie Maxwell to tuck irresistible surprises into the roster.

Others may make musicals like Cabaret and Guys and Dolls a priority—and I adore those too. But with the greatest acting ensemble on the continent in my own back yard, and some of the best design facilities anywhere, I cannot resist the opportunity to see some forgotten classic, showered with some of the greatest talent on earth. Such a chance may never come again.

This year, The Charity that Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists, a play by St. John Hankin immediately caught my eye. Not only was the title enticingly unfamiliar, the remarkable Christopher Newton was returning to direct a cast that boasted some of my favorite actors: Fiona Reid, Laurie Paton, Jim Mezon, and Sharry Flett among them. (I must confess, in my imagination, I cast Ms. Paton in plays all the time—I love her style, her stage presence, her sublime control of comedy, and her versatility is beyond dispute).

I am happy to report that I was not disappointed. The Charity that Began at Home is, as promised, a gem.

It is amusing to describe Hankin’s play alongside a Noel Coward play. The Charity that Began at Home anticipates Coward’s Hay Fever in many ways. (I am disappointed to discover that I am far from the first to make that observation). Whereas in Coward’s play, an obnoxiously self-centered family invites some lovely people up for the weekend and then torments them to hilarious effect, in Hankin’s play, a virtuous and philanthropic family invites a group of obnoxiously self-centered individuals up, to similar effect.

Whereas Coward’s play is a frivolous frolic, Hankin ‘s comedy, while similarly riotous, has a more serious and deeper message in mind. Shaw, the program tells us, considered Hankin to be the finest writer of serious high comedy in his day.

Lady Denison (Reid) and her daughter Margery (Julia Course) have come under the influence of a preacher (Graeme Somerville) from an unconventional church. His philosophy dictates that, “False hospitality is inviting people because you like them. True hospitality is inviting them because they’d like to be asked.” This notion is pushed to such an extreme that Lady Denison hires a manservant who was fired from his previous position,—anyone can hire a man with good references, but only a true philanthropist would hire a man who has been fired!

The idea is that we can improve distasteful people, through our kindness.

Needless to say, the consequences are a disaster. Before the weekend is over, the unsavory Butler has spread discord, and Margery has accepted a marriage proposal in order to improve the man. Nobody is happy.

Hankin has been produced at the Shaw before: Return of the Prodigal in 2001 and 2002; and The Cassilis Engagement in 2007, so this production represents a return to his work.

The hallmark of a Christopher Newton production is exquisitely calibrated acting. Every moment is believable. Every character seems alive and motivated even when sitting quietly or when engaged in outrageous physical comedy. Even the transitions between scenes are thoughtfully choreographed, entertaining and insightful. On this occasion, under the steady hand in and discerning eye of Mr. Newton, the company is absolutely perfect.

Fiona Reid is excellent as winsome if unsettled Lady Denison. Her deep sincerity in the face of all this absurdity is delectable. Laurie Paton is terrific as Mrs. Eversleigh, Lady Denison’s no-nonsense in-law, convincingly advancing the critical view that some people simply do not deserve to be well-treated.

I enjoyed Julia Course and Martin Happer as Margery and her manly but inappropriate suitor. The surprising resolution of this most satisfying comedy rests on their shoulders and their engaging presence assists immeasurably in that journey.

In addition, the set and costumes by William Schmuck speak of privilege with rich but delicately understated furnishings, and clothes that communicate character with vivid immediacy. This is a place where well-intentioned but deluded aristocrats will falter!

The Charity that Began at Home is a rare treat. I strongly recommend that those who want to see the Shaw company do what no other theater on earth can, see this specific play immediately.