The rarely-revived Edwardian playwright St. John Hankin gets showcased by The Shaw Festival, the Ontario troupe devoted to works by writers who were contemporaries of Bernard Shaw's, with the Aug. 18 opening of Hankin's The Return of the Prodigal.
The cynical British playwright (1869-1909) reacted to the sentimental theatre of the 19th-century and "renounced all faith in human nature, attacking abuses but in now way suggesting remedies for them," according to "The Oxford Companion to The Theatre." The journalist-critic-satirist wrote five satiric plays in his lifetime, before committing suicide. The Return of the Prodigal (1905) might be his best-known work, about a wastrel son who has been paid to live away from his family in order for them to maintain their reputation. John Gielgud starred in a revival of the play in 1948.
Shaw artistic director Christopher Newton helms the new staging, which continues at the fest's most intimate space, the three-quarter thrust Court House Theatre. Performances continue to Sept. 23. Previews began Aug. 5.
The play tells of the Jackson family of Gloucestershire. Prosperous textile manufacturer Mr. Jackson has decided to run for Parliament. The elder son works in the family business and his sister and mother maintain the civility of the estate. The family's routine is disturbed by the unexpected return of the younger son, Eustace.
The company includes Bernard Behrens, Blair Williams, Patricia Hamilton, Kelli Fox and Ben Carlson, with Christopher Blake, Susie Burnett, Brigitte Robinson, William Arthur, Anthony Bekenn, Terrence Bryant, Sharry Flett, Stephen McQuigge and Roger Rowland. Designers are William Schmuck (set and costumes) and Kevin Lamotte (lighting).
The Shaw Festival is devoted to the works of Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries and also (new to the mandate this season) plays about the period in which Shaw lived. In theory, a future season may have a world premiere work that involves some aspect of the period 1856-1950.
The Court House is the intimate thrust house of the festival, usually home to domestic character studies and full-length Shaw works that may not be his "major plays." The Shaw routinely unearths and brings new life to obscure works by the likes of Hankin (whose first name is pronounced "Sinjin"), Harley Granville-Barker, J.B. Priestley and other Brits of the period. Its motto is, "Plays about the beginning of the modern world."
Edward Charles St. John Hankin's other works include The Charity That Began at Home, The Cassilis Engagement and The Last of the De Mullins.
For information about the Shaw Festival, located on the lip of Lake Ontario a half-hour downstream from Niagara Falls, call (800) 657-1106.
— By Kenneth Jones