It’s ironic that John Morogiello, artistic director of Best Medicine Rep and prolific playwright, should have written a work that has enjoyed productions all over the map – including off-Broadway – but not in his own theater or anywhere in the D.C. area.
That omission is about to find correction when Morogiello directs and stars in the Best Medicine Rep production of “Engaging Shaw,” a comedy about the historically true, but unconventional, marriage of famous Irish playwright, critic, and political activist George Bernard Shaw to Irish heiress and activist Charlotte Payne-Townshend.
The play is based on Shaw’s courtship of and eventual marriage to Payne-Townshend and the way it clashed with his views, said Morogiello
That Shaw got hitched at all might come as a surprise for those who associate the playwright’s outlook on marriage with those of the linguist in Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” his famous work that later inspired the musical “My Fair Lady.”
Shaw, said Morogiello, was rabidly against marriage for himself – at least on paper. He fervently believed in political equality for women, and, as a socialist, he saw all relationships as power relationships. He therefore urged women not to get married “because they’re more powerful on their own.”
That didn’t stop Shaw from flirting with women platonically, then breaking off with them – suggesting they now were suited to “go off to better society.”
One woman, Payne-Townshend, refused to “go off” and called Shaw’s bluff, Morogiello said. Although she, too, had never wanted to get married, the heiress-activist had read all of Shaw’s works and claimed they changed her life.
She became his secretary and “indispensable” to him, he added. “Eventually the pair got married, though it was probably mostly a celibate marriage, and Shaw continued to flirt, through letters, with famous actresses like Ellen Terry he didn’t want to meet. But basically, Charlotte had beaten Shaw at his own game.”
Co-starring with Morogiello as Payne-Townshend is Rebecca A. Herron.
Herron’s relationship with Best Medicine Rep goes back to its beginnings. She was one of the founding members of the theater and is now vice-president of the board to Morogiello’s president.
Still, despite many years of acting in the area and elsewhere, and their friendship, Herron said she didn’t think Morogiello would cast her as Charlotte.
It was something she very much wanted, calling Charlotte “a wonderful, fascinating woman” who was, like herself, neither a teenager nor in her 70s.
Many actresses have asserted that women in between don’t always find good parts.
“When John did cast me as Charlotte, I said, ‘Yay,’” Herron said. “Now my challenge is to be a good foil to John’s Shaw. He’s a marvelous Shaw.”
Aside from her fascination with the character, Herron enjoys the “battle of wits” that Charlotte enjoyed with Shaw.
“He would flirt with women, then fend them off by telling them he had to find an intellectual equal,” she said “Well, Charlotte said to him, ‘Duh.’”
“Engaging Shaw” also appeals in that it’s “not a traditional love story, a romance that’s a romance,” Herron added. “They weren’t those kinds of people. Even in those days – when many marriages were not about being in love – their romance was atypical. They were unconventional people who found a match.”
Beyond the atypical romance, Herron said, is another element. For those who aren’t familiar with Shaw’s plays – and even those who are – “Engaging Shaw” will cast light on them and on his values.
Playing Shaw and Payne-Townshend’s friends Sidney and Beatrice Webb are Terence Heffernan and Melissa B. Robinson. Stan Levin directs.
“Engaging Shaw” runs Sept. 6-30. Best Medicine Rep’s theater space is located on the second floor of the Lakeforest Mall at 701 Russell Avenue in Gaithersburg. Easiest access is via the Green Flower entrance. For more information, visit www.bestmedicinerep.org.