Half a century ago, Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” written in 1904, was adapted by Joshua Logan, relocated to the American Southland and retitled “The Wisteria Trees,” providing a sturdy and popular vehicle for the late Helen Hayes, who starred as a troubled, aging aristocratic belle based on the Russian author’s Lyubov Ranevskaya.
At more or less the same time, “Liliom,” Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 drama, turned up as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” with its eponymous hero renamed Billy Bigelow, and doomed to live out his tragic life in a New England mill town in the late 19th Century.
The impulse which prompted the Epic Theatre Center’s founder, Ron Russell, along with his colleague, Godfrey L. Simmons Jr., to adapt Shaw’s play, his first, dating from 1892, to a largely African-American milieu exactly a century later is intriguing, even if the result isn’t a precisely perfect fit.
In 1890, Shaw was 34, and had become somewhat known as an essayist, writing mainly about topics imbedded in Fabian Socialism, a cause to which he adhered for most of his life. He was still very much a stranger to the world of drama.
It was, however, that year in which he and his friend, the critic William Archer, had begun to collaborate on a play which, two years later, emerged under Shaw’s sole authorship and bearing the title, “Widowers’ Houses.” Given just two readings at a private arts club, it nevertheless whetted Shaw’s interest in the theater.
It is fairly well known that Shaw wrote the play to influence a British election. “It deals with a burning social question and is deliberately intended to induce people to vote on the Progressive side at the next County Council election in London,” he said.
In the Shavian original, a young doctor, Harry Trench, on an Italian vacation with a friend, William de Burgth Cokane, falls in love with a brash rich girl, Blanche Sartorius, whom he’d met on the ship that had brought them to their Mediterannean destination.
Harry’s somewhat enigmatic love object turns out to be the indulged, spoiled daughter of a notorious Harlem slumlord. To indicate Blanche’s inherent spiritedness, or perhaps just her toughness, Russell, who directed as well as co-adapted the Epic Theatre Center’s version, has her drinking Maker’s Mark straight from the bottle when she thinks no one is looking.
Shaw had made Sartorius an Irishman who, cramming impoverished Irish immigrants into the shabby apartments in the London buildings he owned, a man who took gross advantage of less fortunate individuals of his own heritage. In most productions of “Widowers’ Houses,” however, the Irishness is either left unstressed or ignored totally.
In the new staging, what the program refers to as “a Sea Island near Charleston, South Carolina” takes the place of the original Italian vacation spot, while Sartorius has brought his rebellious daughter along on what he hopes will be an enlightening tour of the ruins of Pre-Civil War slave cabins, with shackles and chains included, for the perusal of present day, upwardly mobile African-Americans on vacation.
The willful Blanche, unsurprisingly, has no interest whatsoever in touring the historical sites attached to her race’s painful history of slavery.
Her father’s real estate holdings, in this version, are in Harlem. In the production’s second half, Sartorius is given a bravura speech in which he attacks the poorer members of his own race, justifying his own opportunism by claiming that if unfortunate blacks were given decent housing, they wouldn’t be intelligent enough, or perhaps sophisticated enough, to look after their dwellings and properly care for them. They are, Sartorius claims, unworthy of better treatment.
Trench, although he is employed as a medical resident, survives mainly on the interest earned by the family trust of which he is the beneficiary. Young and naive as he is, he is nevertheless able to see the evil in his potential father-in-law’s lifestyle.
The play’s liveliest character, at least in the current production, is Lickcheese, Sartorius’s rent collector, cat’s paw, and general bagman. In the course of the play, Lickcheese goes from being a despised, barely tolerated lackey to becoming a player in a phony scheme involving the nonexistent North Hudson Chicken Distributors, a sort of fake frozen chicken outfit. In his own right, Lickcheese has become approximately as despicable as Sartorius himself.
There are mentions of Rosa Parks Houses, of land acquisition by eminent domain, plus glancing references to crack, to cocaine, to “babies having babies,” and even to the practice of addicts stealing and destroying insulation materials in order to acquire the copper wiring which can be sold for money with which to purchase drugs.
At one point William de Burgh Cokane, who dislikes being called Billy, briskly corrects a character who pronounced his name in a manner identical to the drug.
Russell’s staging is efficient, especially considering the postage stamp stage at the Kirk. The same applies to Cameron Anderson’s set design which, with some decidedly awkward pushing and pulling on the part of the cast members, converts from a hotel patio in the Carolinas to a well-stocked library in a Harlem domicile.
The Epic’s cast is good, with Peter Jay Fernandez a standout in the rather uninflected role of Sartorius, and James Wallert particularly appealing as the na