Widowers' Houses at the TimeLine Theatre
by Dan Zeff
CHICAGO — "Widowers' Houses" was George Bernard Shaw's first play.
He started it in 1885 and set it aside until completing it in 1892. The drama
set the tone for what was to come from the great man for more than 60
years — witty dialogue, challenging ideas, and forceful characters. Shaw wrote
many plays better than "Widowers' Houses," but his debut as a playwright
still holds the stage surprisingly well, especially in the scintillating
revival by the TimeLine Theatre.
"Widowers' Houses" is part drawing room comedy and part social
criticism. The criticism attacks one of the most infamous social problems of
Victorian England, the slum squalor of the big cities and the middle and
upper people to own them, from a safe social distance.
The play begins as the kind of sophisticated comedy that might
come from an Oscar Wilde or a Somerset Maugham. A romance has blossomed
between strong willed Blanche Sartrorius and young doctor Harry Trench under
the proprietary eye of Blanche's wealthy father William. There is much
bright conversation among the three plus Trench's pompous friend William
Cokane. The play takes its serious turn when the audience learns that source
of the Sartorius fortune comes from the man¹s ruthless exploitation of
London slum property.
Trench discovers the roots of Sartorius's money and refuses to
accept any financial assistance from the man after he marries Blanche, to
the indignation of the young woman, who is ignorant of how her father
acquires his wealth. Their engagement is broken off but the couple are
reunited at the end, after much discussion of the poor and their housing and
how to capitalize further on the situation.
With true Shavian perversity, Sartorius makes no apologies for his treatment of the poor. He even sees himself as a kind of public
benefactor, putting roofs over the heads of the impoverished who would
otherwise be left in the cold. As to why he never makes even the most basic
improvements in his properties, he claims the residents would demolish any
upgrading in their housing in a matter of days, wasting his money and
forcing him to raise the rent for people already at the economic breaking
Sartorius's self justification can be heard to this day among
private and government owners of inner city housing. They insist that
residents don't know how to live in better accommodations and would reduce
any improved living conditions back to a slum level because they don¹t know
any better and have no respect for property.
There is a fifth major character in the play, a man with the
Dickensian name of Lickcheese. He starts out as Sartorius's servile rent
collector, fired because he spent a small amount of Sartorius's money to
repair a dangerous staircase in one of his employer¹s slum dwellings.
Lickcheese is a kind of Alfred Doolittle type, low born but crafty and a
survivor. He resurfaces later in the play as a rich self made man, shrewd
and amoral enough to cash in on the slum game to his own advantage.
"Widowers' Houses" is as much about the English class system as
the deplorable living conditions of the poor. Trench at first takes the high
moral ground in refusing Sartorius's tainted money, but he learns that he
has been drawing his income from mortgages on such property. At the end of
the play, Trench joins Sartorius and Lickcheese in a new scheme to profit
from the housing market, improving the houses so they can be sold at twice
their value to the local government who will knock down the buildings to
make way for new streets. Shaw summarizes his play by stating "I have shown
middle class respectability and younger son gentility fattening on the
poverty of the slum as flies fatten on filth."
The financial wheeling and dealing in "Widowers' Houses" may be
perplexing to today's audiences, but the ins and outs of mortgages are not
the point. In Shaw's eyes, the upper classes feed off the misery of the
lower classes, justifying their actions without shame simply as good
The plight of Victorian England's urban poor is pretty distant
from modern American sensibilities, but Shaw's delicious way with language
still is as entertaining and invigorating as ever. Blanche Sartorius is one
of his most delightful female creations, hot-tempered, hot blooded and
unafraid of discarding Victorian prudery in the pursuit of her man. Kathy
Logelin is a joy in the role, cunning and temperamental and selfish but
The TimeLine production has cast all the male roles to
perfection from the deep pool of company actors. TimeLine has distinguished
itself many times before with its revivals of urbane modern English plays
and the troupe can add "Widowers' Houses" to its list of ensemble triumphs.
P. J. Powers plays the confused Harry Trench like a young Brian Bedford. Mark
Richard established himself years ago as one of the drollest comic actors on
the Chicagoland scene and he's true to form as Cokane, a perfect caricature
of the proper English gentleman.
As Sartorius, David Parkes assumes a startling pompadour
hairstyle for no discernable reason, but his coiffeur doesn't distract from
a wry performance that turns villainy into proper business conduct without a
moral qualm. Terry Hamilton is a scene stealer as Lickcheese, a sniveling
Cockney in his first scene and an expansive man of the world at the end of
the play, which demonstrates what an infusion of money can do to improve a
character's confidence and standing in society. Liza Fernandez rounds out
the ensemble as Sartorius's bulled and terrified parlor maid.
Director Kevin Fox properly recognizes that the strengths of the
play reside in its comic drolleries and gets the most out of Shaw's humor
while still keeping the social criticism in focus. The scenery by Brian
Sidney Bembridge and the costumes by Rachel Anne Healy credibly recreate the
upper class English world of the 1890's. Keith Parham designed the lighting
and Andrew Hansen designed the sound and composed the original music.
"Widowers' Houses" runs through July 1 at the TimeLine Theatre,
615 West Wellington Avenue. Performances run Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.,
Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Wednesday evening matinees
begin on May 30. Tickets are $25. Call 773-281-8463.
The show gets a rating of four stars.