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The Charity That Began at Home: Top-notch acting can’t redeem a misguided production

Fiona Reid and Julia Course in The Charity that Began at Home at the Shaw Festival.

David Cooper/Shaw Festival

1 out of 4 stars

Written by
St. John Hankin
Directed by
Christopher Newton
Fiona Reid, Julia Course, Jim Mezon, Graeme Somerville, Darcy Gerhart
The Shaw Festival
Court House Theatre
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Runs Until
Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Charity that Began at Home, a 1906 comedy by St. John Hankin receiving a brilliantly acted revival at the Shaw Festival, had me laughing and laughing all afternoon long. Indeed, I laughed and laughed until I sat down to dinner afterward and stopped to think. Wait a second, did the biggest laughs of the show come at the expense of a rape victim?

Written by a playwright only recently rediscovered thanks, in no small part, to the Shaw Festival, The Charity that Began at Home had no recorded performances between 1917 and 2002, when it was performed by the Mint Theater in New York. It is part of a stream of programming in Niagara-on-the-Lake that Shaw artistic director Jackie Maxwell has in the past called "archeological." The term has a certain Indiana Jones sexiness to it, but the more you think about it, the more problematic it becomes. After all, what do archeologists do with the artifacts they uncover, but exhibit them in museums with signs to put them in context?

Director Christopher Newton's production of The Charity That Began at Home illustrates the perils of mounting an old text without acknowledging that the times (and the audience) have changed, radically. Its trivialization of rape is simply unacceptable today.

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Hankin's mostly thoughtful comedy takes place at the country house of one Lady Denison, played by Fiona Reid with an upper-class empty-headedness that she has well and truly mastered.

Lady Denison and her daughter Margery (Julia Course) have recently come under the influence of a rebel preacher named Basil Hylton (Graeme Somerville), who believes that charity is only true when it involves sacrifice. As distilled by Lady Denison, his lesson is applied thus to house guests: "False hospitality is inviting people because you like them. True hospitality is inviting them because they'd like to be asked."

This means that Lady Denison's country house is, when the play begins, overrun with bores and boors. General Bonsor (Jim Mezon) rambles on and on and on; schoolteacher Miss Triggs (Sharry Flett) is sharp, ungrateful and insists on instructing everyone in German; and Hugh Verreker (Martin Happer) is a former soldier run out of his regiment for stealing – and who now has his designs on Margery.

The Charity that Began at Home is, therefore, a satire of idealism and philanthropy – but it is a clever-enough work to leave a fair bit of ambiguity concerning whose point of view is correct. Newton's humanistic approach emphasizes some of the stylistic invention in Hankin's text: The first scene plays like a Beckettian wall of sound; the final act, where the lights flicker on and off, seems a positively experimental epilogue.

But Newton's production hits a snag when it comes to Hylton's concept of charity as it applies to the household help. According to Hyltonian principles, Lady Denison has hired Soames (Andrew Bunker), a butler dismissed from a previous household without character references, because he would have not been able to find a job anywhere else.

The unintended consequences of this act of charity are significantly more distressing than any other in the play: Anson, Lady Denison's maid, is raped by Soames and becomes pregnant.

And here is Hylton's advice to Lady Denison when presented with this situation. "I'm very sorry for what has happened to poor Anson, sorrier than I can say," he says. "But that can't be altered now. What is past is past. The question is how are we to help Soames?"

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If this is a satire of Christian forgiveness, it is very, very dark – but Newton's production treats the drama surrounding Anson without tact, indeed, filling it with physical comedy. Reid contorts her face for ages trying to avoid talking about the subject; and Anson (Darcy Gerhart, mostly looking genuinely traumatized) goes over-the-top with her snuffling and nose-blowing.

It's not a problem that the characters in Hankin's play treat a rape as a matter akin to him pocketing silverware, of course; but it's shocking that Newton's production does.

The word "rape" is never spoken – and so the audience, myself included, chuckles away assuming, perhaps, that intercourse had been consensual. But it's pretty clear what has happened when you think back and look closely at the script. In a scene set a week before Anson discovers her pregnancy, Soames is described as "violent" and the maid is described as looking "wretched lately – and she used to be so bright."

And when Lady Denison does present Anson's situation to Hylton, she puts it this way: "She said that she and Soames … well, in fact that Soames had –"

The Charity that Began at Home is being marketed with a quote that compares it to Downton Abbey. It is always worth pointing out when the Shaw Festival does this that the television series is written for audiences today, and only set in the past. The Charity that Began at Home, on the other hand, was set in the present when it was written, and was written for an audience and the sensibilities of the past.

You only have to look at how seriously Downton Abbey recently dealt with a similar plot-line – a valet raping a maid – to understand the difference.

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That's not to to say that The Charity that Began at Home shouldn't be performed, any more than that The Taming of the Shrew shouldn't. But, as with Shrew, it means a production needs to fully acknowledge what has happened or be deconstructed in a way so as to not repeat the trivializations of the past, but reveal them.

With performers such as Reid and Mezon doing top-notch work here, it is not with joy that I give The Charity that Began at Home a one-star rating. But, as I said, I laughed and laughed and now I feel sick about it.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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