'She Stoops To Conquer' with a Montana accent

Tribune theater critic

It's unlikely that Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith ever saw a big sky --unless you count that patch of gray he might have seen while lying on his backin a Dublin meadow. But under the sparkling adaptive direction of Bill Brown,the 18th Century comedy "She Stoops To Conquer" proves remarkably willing totake a boat to Montana.

Tempting as it may be, the addition of rural American motifs to periodAnglo-Irish comedy has produced plenty of fool's gold. Some of us are stillrecovering from a tedious mongrel called "The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas."And over the years, I've seen a few too many Beatrices and Benedicks runningaround in chaps.

But "She Stoops" works surprisingly well up at the Northlight Theatre inSkokie. Aside from supremely careful execution, a light touch and a lovelyoriginal score from Andrew Hansen, it's mostly because Brown -- a skilleddirector with a very precise sense of what he wants -- has found a conceptthat both fits and illuminates the fun of the play.

Brown, who first worked on such a concept for a 2003 summer project inMontana, lets the upscale, uptight pair of Charles Marlow and George Hastingsremain Englishmen. But their journey to the "country" in pursuit of twoeligible young ladies has involved an 1895 trip across the Atlantic. And thusKate Hardcastle becomes a comely young Western gal with frontier ways, theThree Pigeons becomes a rollicking saloon and Bartender Bet becomes aballadeer of pioneer stock.

Because Brown makes Hardcastle, Kate's dad, a Scots emigre, this doesn'tpush credulity too much. In many ways, it improves the play.

"She Stoops," still a fixture in the English theatrical repertory, alwayssuffered from this silly affectation of townspeople being a couple of hoursfrom home yet acting as if they'd landed on Mars. In Brown's take, theesoteric class machinations, miscommunication and humor that inform most ofthe classic stranger-in-a-strange-land comedy in the piece are dexterouslyapplied to British-American relations at the time. And, heck, it could beanytime.

When you add a lot of western-style music -- some of which cleverly pullslyrics from other Goldsmith material -- you have a thoroughly appealing show,aside from a small sag in creativity shortly after intermission.

Contrary to what a lot of directors think, Goldsmith was a million milesfrom the restoration satirist. He intended the effect of this, his laughingcomedy, to be somewhat akin to the feelings of affectionate, warm benevolencethat one gets, say, when one sees a really decent production of "A MidsummerNight's Dream." And that's precisely the mood evoked here. You'll be surprisedat the wafts of benevolence flowing out from the stage and the languagecouldn't be clearer.

The performers are as warm and genial as a Chicago spring of your hopelessfantasies, especially Kymberly Mellen's ripe, hearty Kate and Timothy EdwardKane's Marlow, lovably confused in a way that applies to many Englishmen. AsHardcastle, John Lister has a thicker, funnier accent than Billy Connelly.

And as his shrewish spouse, the redoubtable, hysterical Linda Kimbroughproves once again that she was born 300 years too late.

"She Stoops To Conquer"

When: Through April 29

Where: North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $34-$54 at 847-673-6300



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