The Way of the World
By William Congreve
Directed by Peter Hinton
Featuring Damien Atkins, Caroline Cave, Diana Donnelly, Randi Helmers, Tanja Jacobs, John Jarvis, C. David Johnson, Nancy Palk, Mike Shara, Michael Simpson, Maria Vacratsis, William Webster
Runs July 2 – August 2 @ Young Centre in the Distillery District
By Daina Valiulis
It is rare to see a restoration comedy on stage these days. Peter Hinton, the director of Soulpepper’s The Way of the World, remarked, “I think that has something to do with skepticism about its style or its fixation on artifice. People think of wigs and fans and white faces. Its heart can feel a little distant.” But he points out that there is still an audience for comedy of manners and cites The Devil Wears Prada as an example. The characters in restoration drama are committed to one goal and “moral compromise is the inevitable outcome.” In Congreve’s play, the goal-seeking is so extreme that the characters’ very names reflect their motives (“Marwood,” for example. Get it? “Mar-would?”).
The main story is about Mirabell (Mike Shara), who falls in love with Millamant (Caroline Cave). For various reasons, not all of the other characters are pleased about this situation. The plot involves scheming, double-agent servants, and fops, and characters getting all tangled in each others’ hair (though everything works out for them in the end). Unfortunately, I found the story hard to follow. The characters’ motives weren’t always played as strongly as they should have been, and since in a play of this type this is crucial, this production really fell short of the mark.
The characters have very similar names, and many of them are introduced in the first scene. I wanted Mike Shara to demonstrate more passion and variety in his delivery, so as to clarify the identity of other characters and the nature of his relationships with them. Mr. Fainall (C. David Johnson) and Mrs. Marwood (Nancy Palk), both schemers and villains, did not pursue their goals vehemently enough to be believable either as villains or lovers. Nancy Palk, whom I admire and usually like in productions, was flat and uninteresting; when she left the stage, I forgot that she was even in the show.
Damien Atkins, who played Mr. Witwould, was distracting with his arrogant overacting and constant hamming to the audience. (If I had been an audience member during the Restoration, I would have chucked an orange at him!) While this may have been a conscious portrayal of a melodramatic, larger-than-life character, it is possible to act out these characteristics but to still be genuine in the performance; Mr. Petulant (William Webster) and Sir Wilfull Witwould (John Jarvis) had similar characteristics, yet neither distracted from the story. I was once told that you must love the performer within yourself, not yourself within the performance; this advice would be relevant to Damian Atkins in this role.
On a more positive note, Caroline Cave perfectly balanced melodrama with genuine feeling and motivation. Thus, she was my favourite performer and character in the piece. She played Millamant as a graceful, elegant, and pretentious little shrew who makes Mirabell work hard to woo her. Indeed, the saving grace of the play (and my favourite scene) was the courtship scene between Mirabell and Millamant towards the end, when I finally understood what the play was about!
Though the acting was of inconsistent quality, I loved the director’s idea to set the play in the 1950s and felt that there were common themes between this and Congreve’s time. I adored the costumes and wanted desperately to wear the feathered hat Millamant dons in her first scene. Overall, though, high production values couldn’t mask the fact that the play had major shortcomings. See it if you have the money and are curious, but otherwise, save your pennies.