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Kristi Frank, left, as Georgiana Vicary and Kristopher Bowman as Adam Lankester in Just to Get Married.David Cooper/Handout

  • Title: Just to Get Married
  • Written by: Cicely Hamilton
  • Director: Severn Thompson
  • Actors: Kristi Frank, Kristopher Bowman
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Royal George Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 16, 2022

In 1910, Just to Get Married, a comedy that critiqued the sexist socioeconomics of marriage, premiered at the Little Theatre in London without a playwright’s name attached.

Opening shows anonymously was the practice of that theatre company’s actor-manager, Gertrude Kingston, who wanted to prevent reviewer bias. Indeed, critics would try to guess whether a play at that venue was written by a man or a woman.

No possibility of avoiding reviewer bias at a classics-centred company such as the Shaw Festival, where Just to Get Married is currently being produced – at least not without an elaborate ruse.

We know not only who wrote the comedy – suffragette and writer Cicely Hamilton, whose Diana of Dobson’s was produced at Shaw as part of its canon-expanding programming in 2003 – but also that it was not produced between its very first run and 2017.

The game for a critic now, then, is to ponder whether Hamilton’s comedy was unjustly or justly neglected; how much the producing biases of previous periods kept it off stage; and how much the producing biases of our own time have led to its resurrection.

Just to Get Married centres on an aristocratic young woman named Georgiana (Kristi Frank) who has been raised by her aunt (Claire Jullien) and uncle (David Alan Anderson).

From left: David Alan Anderson as Sir Theodore Grayle, Bowman, Andrew Lawrie as Tod Grayle, Claire Jullien as Lady Catherine Grayle, Frank, Monica Parks as Mrs. Macartney, Katherine Gauthier as Bertha Grayle and Sophia Walker as Frances Melliship in Just to Get Married.David Cooper/Handout

At 29, with no money of her own or profession or trade to support herself, she has finally resigned herself to the fact that she will “just” have to get married so she will no longer be a financial burden on her family.

Fortunately, a rich gentleman named Adam Lankester (Kristopher Bowman) seems interested – and Georgiana has not been shy about encouraging him. “I’ve been making myself remarkably cheap,” she puts it, bluntly, to family friend Mrs. Macartney (Monica Parks), whom she walks in on while she’s gossiping about her.

When shy Adam’s proposal comes, however, it does not feel like much of a triumph. As their wedding day approaches, Georgiana’s resolve to tie the knot is shaken by the discovery that her husband-to-be is a genuinely kind person and completely in love with her. Can she go ahead and betray this man by marrying him when she does not love him back?

Bernard Shaw, whose name is on plays at this festival and the festival itself – bias be darned – wrote a number of comedies about the coercive nature of marriage as it was in Britain in much of his lifetime. What distinguishes Just to Get Married from his chatty intellectual comedies extolling things such as the liberalization of divorce laws, however, is that it centres the plight of an individual woman, lets her name her own problem and be the voice of her own discontent.

Frank, best known at Shaw for her work in musicals, gives a broad comic performance as Georgiana, depicting her as the Edwardian ancestor of the hot messes you might find in a rom-com today. But the actor nevertheless allows the character’s anguish to be felt underneath the idiosyncrasies and exaggerations.

Director Severn Thompson largely keeps her production light, her designers filling the stage with bright objects and beautiful outfits, and for the most part this approach seems to suit the material’s tone – except in a couple of places where the physical comedy falls flat.

The problem with Hamilton’s three-act play is that ultimately it doesn’t care about much more than Georgiana. The aunt and uncle get a fair amount of stage time but remain sketchy as characters – and disappear after a central confrontation. The younger cousins – though Andrew Lawrie and Katherine Gauthier get brief moments to shine, being smugly superior or bratty – never get to express how they feel about being the next victims of the marital-industrial complex.

Then there’s Adam, who is such a flawless, romantic hero, he’d be hard to take if he were played by someone less charismatic than Bowman.

The ending of Hamilton’s play was debated in 1910 – and it definitely feels abrupt, unlikely and, in some ways, a bit of a betrayal of the play’s principles.

But, well, Just to Get Married is ultimately just a comedy. Hamilton wasn’t aiming to write A Doll’s House with a Nora as a door-slamming runaway bride; she wanted to make a few points but didn’t feel the need to harm any female characters in the process.

In that, she seems in tune with some 21st-century playwrights from marginalized groups who aren’t eager to once again depict trauma on stage, emphasizing joy in their works instead.

In fact, if I’d seen Just to Get Married without knowing what I was walking in on – well, how can I say for sure? It’d be fascinating for a new-work theatre company to recreate Kingston’s authorship-anonymization experiment in our very different times, however.

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