by Lynn on August 25, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Until Oct. 15, 2023.

Written by Edith Wharton

Directed by Peter Hinton-Davis

Set and costumes by Gillian Gallow

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Live video by Haui

Cast: Damien Atkins

Neil Barclay

Chloe Bowman/Julia Thompson

Rais Clarke-Mendes

Patrick Galligan

Katherine Gauthier

Claire Jullien

Richard Lam

André Morin

Tara Rosling

Taurian Teelucksingh

Lindsay Wu

A family drama about rigid class distinction, the desperation of poverty, the truth about a death, euthanasia,  and it’s a terrific story that grips you to the end.

Background.  It’s a bit of a coup for the Shaw Festival to present The Shadow of a Doubt because this play has never been done anywhere before. There were efforts to have a production in 1901 and was listed as “In Production” produced by Charles Frohman, but never actually produced. Frohman died on the Lusitania in 1915 and the production was abandoned. The play was discovered in the Edith Wharton archives at the University of Texas in 2016.

Edith Wharton was to the manor born, super manor born—1862-1937—to high society in New York. At the time women of that class were not encouraged to do anything but marry well. But Edith Wharton loved to write and did from an early age. She was encouraged by the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. All told she wrote essays, books: The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, poetry and of course this long-forgotten play called THE SHADOW OF A DOUBT. In the play, as in her books, she wrote about the super-rich and the aristocracy.

The Story. The story is set in England at the turn of the last century.Kate and John Derwent are a very happily married couple.She is the loving step-mother to John’s daughter Sylvia. Kate is John’s second wife.His first wife Agnes (and mother to Sylvia) died after a terrible accident.At the time Kate was Agnes’s nurse and her great, good friend.And while Kate and John married about a year after Agnes died, Agnes’s father, Lord Osterleigh was not pleased at the quickness of the marriage or that Kate was from a lower class. And Lord Osterleigh held his daughter’s memory dear at all cost.

There is also trouble in other areas. Dr. Carruthers, who tended to Agnes, has been blackmailing Kate because of information he knows of Agnes’ death. To separate John from Kate, Lord Osterleigh has arranged that John be given a diplomatic post in China, but he is not allowed to take his family. Lord Osterleigh also coerces John to give Sylvia over to his care while John is away, saying he could do a better job since they are blood relatives. Never mind that Sylvia and Kate are devoted to each other.

So The Shadow of a Doubt is a huge psychological thriller in its way. And certainly looks at the vice-like grip that class distinction and money have in the upper classes. 

The Production. It’s directed by Peter Hinton-Davis. Often that’s all one needs to know to imagine a vivid, intellectual, evocative production. I have no proof, but this play sounds like something Peter Hinton-Davis would discover and want to dramatize in a production.

Hinton-Davis is an intellectual, an auteur. He has such a handle on every facet of a production that you see his imprint everywhere. And he surrounds himself with terrific theatre artists who can rise to his standards.

The lighting by Bonnie Beecher is stark and exquisite. There are shafts of light and shadow that seem to paint the set and the characters in a moody glow. Gillian Gallow has designed the era- perfect-costumes in black that adds to the rigor of the period. Nothing should stand out, because that would be gauche. The results are eerie and heighten the mood. Gillian Gallow also designed the set—dark colours, a house that looks huge just from the sense of the one room we are in.

The production is suffused with eclectic music that also matches the mood. The music varies from original work that is not formally recorded; Norwegian huldra music, and classical music such as the from Satie and the duet from Lakme. It’s all evocative and seeps into the scenes.

Peter Hinton-Davis also has live videos of scenes on stage projected on the back walls. The life video work is by Haui. So we might see Kate (Katherine Gauthier) in profile on stage but the video will project her looking at us face on or from another angle.

The acting is so full of controlled emotion that when it erupts it’s like an earthquake. Katherine Gauthier plays Kate Derwent who married into all this privilege and upper class.  Katherine Gauthier gives her character of Kate a natural grace and elegance to all she meets. That’s not something you learn like setting a fancy table, it’s something you are born with as a decent human being. And Katherine Gauthier exudes that grace and elegance as a matter of course.

Patrick Galligan plays Lord Osterleigh. Osterleigh is to the manor born. He is formal, courtly, aristocratic, always knows everybody’s place and treats people accordingly. He is cunning, manipulative and will use his position and power to get his way. He wants Kate out of the way. So, he plots to isolate her from her step-daughter and her husband. But he doesn’t consider that Kate is a woman of huge character and decency and in a stunning final scene we see just how formidable Kate can be.

It’s a scene between Lord Osterleigh and Kate that makes you grip the arm rest, it’s so powerful between two equals. Again, Patrick Galligan as Lord Osterleigh and Katherine Gauthier as Kate bring their full power to bear. Osterleigh is bullying and tries to be overpowering. Kate is calm and cool—she has nothing to lose and she knows something that will derail Osterleigh. The two are perfectly matched and the argument is fought between two masters.  

The detail in behaviour of the various characters is exquisite. I detect the gentle touch of Peter Hinton-Davis. Dr. Carruthers, is beautifully played by Damien Atkins. Dr. Carruthers is a desperate man. His wife is sick and he needs money for her needs. He has not eaten in two days. He comes to Katherine for money. While she is out of the room, he sits anxiously in a room in which tea and pastries are on the table. He grabs at the silver tea pot, pours a cup of tea and hungrily gulps it down, holding the cup in both hands. He realizes his gauche error, corrects himself in the seat, sits up straight and pours another cup of tea and holds the cup, this time properly, with one hand delicately holding the cup with the finger through the loop, and probably his little finger raised. He lunges at the pastries and bites at one desperately, until he realizes that that too, is ill-mannered. He slows his eating reveling in every bite. I did wonder why he wouldn’t steal the silver tea pot and sell it. Perhaps that says more about me than Dr. Carruthers.

In another instance of subtle, evocative work, Tara Rosling plays Lady Uske, a waspish, gossipy, hilarious woman. She is never without her fan. It’s the delicate way she fans herself that speaks volumes. She casually slides the extended fan slowly through the air, in a delicately wavy fashion. It’s not fast because being cool is not the intent. It’s to be ‘innocuously present’. It’s when Lady Uske resoundingly snaps her fan shut, that she is making a pointed statement. Subtlety is all with this class. Don’t be flashy, but be present.

Peter Hinton-Davis has various stage managers appear on stage to interact with some actors, helping them put a costume etc. The interesting thing is the in all cases, the stage manager wears a vibrant coloured top (along with their black pants and shoes) to differentiate them from the totally black-clad actor. In the theatre, the stage management/crew all wear black except here. I don’t know why Peter Hinton-Davis does this—having a stage manager on stage with the actor. I’m always glad when a director makes me wonder at a piece of stage business, I just wish I knew the point here—that the world of theatre is real and the world of the play is artificial? Don’t know.   

Comment. I loved The Shadow of a Doubt, both the play and the production. But I do hesitate to make it a gushing rave. I love watching the huge invention of Peter Hinton-Davis’ direction. I’m impressed with his use of light, music, staging and often live video of scenes going on  on stage. My concern is that often I sense that Peter Hinton-Davis doesn’t know when to stop with the invention and dare I say it, fussing. I don’t know what is served by having live videos of scenes going on on stage—where do I look, at the back wall where the videos are or at the stage where the actors are? Why is stage management on stage wearing vibrant coloured tops as they adjust costumes on an actor, something that happens off stage?

Quite often I’m aware of Peter Hinton-Davis as the star of the show rather than the play. I’m not sure that’s helpful. I do have enormous respect for his brain, intellect, vision, and depth of knowledge of the arts and literature etc. and he always introduces me to a world with which I was not familiar (Norwegian Huldra music, anyone?) But doing less in the area of direction will still illuminate the play.

The Shaw Festival presents:

Plays until Oct. 15, 2023.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daniel Bratton October 15, 2023 at 7:09 pm

Just arrived home from seeing the final performance of Wharton’s play and am still spellbound: Peter Hinton-Davis’s production was magnificent! The acting was superb—Katherine Gauthier was stunning as the protagonist—and the sets, costumes, and lighting all contributed to what one can only describe as a brilliant production!


2 Lynn October 15, 2023 at 8:00 pm

Agreed! Glad you enjoyed it.

Lynn Slotkin