“She Stoops to Conquer” has appeared regularly since its first performance in 1773. The play was initially satirizing the overly moralistic “sentimental comedy” popular at the time, but the play remains accessible today even as the sentimental comedy is something long forgotten. The writer, Oliver Goldsmith, is also known for his modern retelling of the biblical story of Job in his novel “The Vicar of Wakefield,” but “She Stoops to Conquer” remains his supreme achievement and his most popular work.
West End Productions has chosen this difficult play to launch itself as Albuquerque’s newest theater company. Directed by Joe Feldman and featuring a cast of outstanding actors, the production is competently performed and on the whole a success; curiously, though, there are relatively few laughs issuing from the audience, considering this play’s status as one of the masterpieces of English comic drama and the premier example of the genre its author called “laughing comedy” (as opposed to those terribly unfunny sentimental comedies popular in the 18th century). Nonetheless, West End stays true to its pledge to hold itself “to the highest professional standards,” and this show is a promising introduction to yet another outstanding Albuquerque theater company.
The plot is built around a series of mistaken identities. Due to a practical joke, Marlow thinks Mr. Hardcastle is a low-born innkeeper, although he is actually a prosperous gentleman and Marlow’s prospective father-in-law. Marlow is also comically unable to converse with “ladies,” and can open up only with women of the lower classes. Unable to even look at his prospective fiancée, he later mistakes her for an attractive barmaid when, in deference to her father, she changes into more modest attire.
There is a subplot involving Marlow’s friend Hastings and Kate’s cousin Constance. Mrs. Hardcastle insists her son Tony marry Constance, but she is in love with Hastings, and in fact despises Tony, who feels the same about her. If Hastings and Constance are going to elope (and there is nothing Tony desires more) it becomes necessary for Constance and Tony to convince Mrs. Hardcastle that they are in love, all to great comic effect. In the manner of Shakespeare’s Rosalind, Kate manages these complications and deceptions perfectly until all matters are happily resolved.
The opening night performance that I attended was a little lacking in polish, and some of the light and sound cues were off, but the cast is very good, and I expect this to grow into a very solid production. This is no small achievement, as this is extremely challenging classical theater.
Especially good are Neil Faulconbridge and Colleen Neary McClure as Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle, Jessica Osbourne as Kate, Tim Crofton as Tony, Tim Riley as Marlow, and Bridget Dunne as Constance. Blake Magnusson is excellent with the difficult language, but I felt he overdid the foppishness of his character. Goldsmith believed he was writing naturalistic comedy, in conscious opposition to the artificial nonsense he felt was pervasive on the London stage.
“She Stoops to Conquer” is playing through March 12 at the VSA North Fourth Art Center, 4904 Fourth NW, Albuquerque. Go to westendproductions.org or call 410-8524 for reservations.