Blanche (Megan Trout) hates the poor. “At least, I hate those dirty, drunken, disreputable people who live like pigs,” she shrilly informs her oleaginous father Mr. Sartorius (Warren David Keith). Those disreputable people, however, are the ones paying rent to him. Those “pigs” also provide her father with more than enough money to keep her swathed in silk and lace. To emphasize that fact, costume designer Callie Floor dresses Blanche in rose, lavender and aubergine. When Trout walks from one end of the stage to another, you can hear the luxurious layers of fabric rustle against her skin.
In contrast, the men in this production of George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses (through March 4 at the Aurora Theatre) wear beige and brown and gray. This external drabness suggests a corresponding internal one, a soullessness, that bears itself out as the play develops. Blanche, with her wealth and finery, is the swaddled prize desired by her fiancé Dr. Harry Trench (Dan Hoyle). But temperamentally, it’s hard to see why. As her estimation of the poor indicates, she’s spoiled and overbearing. The only memorable smile that Trout delivers during the play’s two and a half hour duration is one that expresses an emotional triumph over Trench. Apart from that, the actress puckers the corners of her mouth down. Her tongue is the source of all that sourness, and it continually renews itself.
Shaw though doesn’t concern himself with her psychology — how she’s managed to become a prima donna. Her mother’s been dead for years by the time Widowers’ Houses begins. So the blame for her unpleasant disposition lies implicitly with her indulgent father. When Keith is on stage as the widower Sartorius, the theater feels haunted. His eyes carry a determination, a horror of that determination, and finally, a resignation to it. It’s not grief that’s fueling him. It’s his willing and happy escape from grief, or any emotion that requires self-reflection, into an unabashed sense of greed. The answer for this family’s emptiness is always, “More!” Blanche is, in every regard, his natural heir.
The good Dr. Trench is meant to embody Shaw’s counterpoint to Sartorius, who turns out to be a notorious slumlord. But Hoyle never appeared comfortable in Trench’s skin, accent or attire. His performance felt pre-programmed as if it were endlessly looping. All of his decisions had been made before he ever set foot on stage — how to walk (stiffly), how to talk (like an inflated thing releasing air). Hoyle didn’t ever register the meaning and purpose of Trench. Why does he love Blanche? For her beauty, her money? No one could argue it’s for her personality.
Trench’s role is the moral conflict that Shaw arranges at the center of Widowers’ Houses. We eventually find out that he, too, is a landlord but, unbeknownst to him, his property has deep financial ties to Sartorius. At first, Trench resists a marriage with Blanche that would, by default, also attach him to her avaricious father. But he has no backbone, and no desire to live without the income from his real estate. If Hoyle, in or out of character, felt this dilemma keenly, he was unable to convey it to the audience. Instead, the volume was turned up in the performances by Trout, Keith and Howard Swain as Sartorius’ smarmy henchman Lickcheese (a great Dickensian name).
After the play ended, a graph flashed across a large screen at the back of the stage. Throughout the production, the screen showed projections of late 19th century London, florid drawings of architecture and busy city streets. The graph charted the rise of rents in Berkeley over the past few decades. It was a curious attempt to draw parallel lines between the play, first produced in 1892, and the despair that’s easily found by scrolling through current Bay Area rents. Curious because the slide appeared while the audience made for the exit with their backs to the screen. Even without this afterthought, this breezy revival of Widowers’ Houses makes the same point it did 125 years ago. The Haves still condemn the unfortunate rabble who don’t own property as if poverty were a moral failing. That’s how they can casually dismiss their dirty, disreputable tenants as being less than human, merely pigs.
Widowers’ Houses, through March 4, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $49-$56; 510-843-3822 or auoratheatre.org.