by Hugh Hunter
At Quintessence in Mt. Airy, “She Stoops to Conquer” (1773) by Oliver Goldsmith is running in repertory with “Hamlet.” This classic English comedy delighted audiences when it first appeared and still delights today.
In “She Stoops” two aristocratic fathers arrange a marriage for their children, Kate Hardcastle and Charles Marlow. But when Marlow travels from London to meet his intended, Kate’s prankster step-brother Tony tricks Marlow into confusing the family manor with a country inn.
It soon becomes apparent that Marlow has a problem. He is totally abashed in the presence of “modest” women (i.e., women of his class), and can only feel at ease with women “of a different stamp,” a phrase he uses in rakish talks with fellow gallant George Hastings.
Perspicacious Kate sees all. She pretends to be a lowly barmaid to rouse Marlow’s amorous attentions and then toys with him as if she were reeling in a fish. This is the core deception in a society full of deceptions, where everyone has a show self and a true self.
Director Alexander Burns uses the same stage he developed for “Hamlet.” It is a minimal set that involves only a handful of props. But a sense of place is conveyed with lighting (light design Ellen Moore) and the adoption of colorful period dress (costume design, Jane Casanave).
The casting is superb. As the principal lovers, Sonja Field (Kate) and Josh Carpenter (Marlow) are funny and look gorgeous together. Time after time, E. Ashley Izard steals the show with her portrayal of the mercenary Mrs. Hardcastle.
Sean Bradley (Tony), John G. Preston (Mr. Hardcastle) and Ralph Edmonds (Sir Charles Marlow) are masterfully comic while always staying in character. Rachel Brodeur (Constance) and Daniel Fredrick (Hastings) have their own scheming romance that also serves to advance the plot. Alexander Harvey, Griffin Stanton-Ameisen and Matt Lorenz are fine as servant-clown figures.
Anglo-Irish Goldsmith led a troubled and disorganized life. (As a young man he planned to come to America but missed the boat.) A year before he died at age 43, he wrote this enduring play that helped lead English comedy away from sentimentality and back to its classic role of laughing at our foolishness.
While “She Stoops” lampoons our foibles, it is also broadly satirical, especially with regard to issues of class. For example, Marlow finds Mr. Hardcastle haughty and arrogant when he believes Hardcastle is a mere innkeeper. Yet he thinks the same behavior is fine, even commendable, once he understands Hardcastle’s true identity.
“She Stoops” has been quietly influential. In witty, sharply observant Kate it is hard not to see a Jane Austen heroine or a prototype for the gallants of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” in Marlow and Hastings. There is no bitterness in “She Stoops,” and even in its satirical aspect it is so wonderfully good-willed you feel yourself smiling all night long.
Quintessence is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “She Stoops to Conquer” will run through Nov 24. Tickets available at 215-987-4450.