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Review: Washington Stage Guild's 'Dear Liar' sees George Bernard Shaw match wits with his headstrong muse

Streaming now until Oct. 3rd

Review: Washington Stage Guild's 'Dear Liar' sees George Bernard Shaw match wits with his headstrong muse

The Washington Stage Guild's Dear Liar proves that behind every great man is a great woman. The playwright George Bernard Shaw is certainly no exception.


In Shaw's case that woman is Mrs. Patrick Campbell, an actress who inspired the iconic Eliza Doolittle character and Shaw's own lust. Dear Liar, pre-taped and presented on Zoom now until Oct. 3rd, features Nigel Reed and Julie-Ann Elliott reading Shaw and Campbell's love letters. For roughly two hours, director Laura Giannarelli allows viewers to glimpse an artist and muse relationship that is sexy and sweet, beguiling and sincere.

While Campbell is not well-remembered now, she achieved fame in the 1890s and Shaw knew she could do wonders in his plays. As their relationship progressed, Shaw became infatuated with her despite the fact that he was married. Campbell did little to discourage his affections. In the 1950s, actor Jerome Kilty adapted Shaw and Campbell's letters, and their extraordinary up-and-down friendship, into the play Dear Liar, a hit in London and New York.

Campbell's letters portray a modern woman deftly navigating the patriarchy with a wry, self-aware charm and an iron will. Campbell frets about her fading looks, yet considers it a curse all women must eventually bear. After booking a touring gig, she comments quietly on being childless when she wonders if sons or daughters would stop her from earning a living from her art.

In every way society seeks to limit Campbell, she remains determined and self-possessed. Her strength and intelligence is best revealed, however, when Shaw reads her a play about a plucky Cockney-accented flower girl at the whim of a misogynistic, hubristic professor determined to transform her life. The show is Pygmalion and the plucky flower girl Eliza Doolittle was written for Campbell. About to assume an iconic role, Campbell deftly deflects Shaw's arduous advances to demand a contract. The theatre is business, she writes, and only when that business is solidified will she be his "pretty slut."

Campbell and Shaw's letters are never tame -- he considers a photo of her respite in bed to be a "tempting providence" -- and yet their cheekiness is matched with an endearing sincerity. In one letter, Campbell asks what Shaw would do with two minutes spent staring into her eyes in silence. Shaw equates the experience to seeing heaven. But perhaps the greatest evidence of Shaw's respect and love for Campbell exists in the body of work he produced -- Pygmalion, Arms and the Man, Saint Joan and Caesar and Cleopatra -- that featured self-assured and independent women. Feminism became a hallmark of Shaw's work, and Dear Liar finds these ideas originate in Campbell.

For an intimate exchange between two people, the two-person Zoom presentation works well. The narrative asides between letter readings are clarifying when efforts to break the fourth wall are usually clunky, especially on Zoom. Elliott and Reed imbue the work with a much-needed jolt of energy, while Elaine Randolph establishes various settings for each character with period Zoom backgrounds that few other streaming-only plays have accomplished.


Free tickets are available at the Stage Guild's page at www.ShowTix4U.com/events/wsg. Follow the prompts to obtain a free ticket good for a 48 hour rental period.




From This Author - Lora Strum

An award-winning freelance journalist specializing in long-form, community-focused storytelling, Lora has written for the Washington City Paper, the PBS NewsHour, Marquette Magazine, Broa... (read more about this author)


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