A recent mid-run weeknight performance of the Guthrie’s My Fair Lady revealed an example of one of the things that Big Blue does very well indeed: staging a classic with a pitch-perfect sense of proportion, a varied and engaged cast, and a technical prowess that makes the case for big-budget regional theater by virtue of taut storytelling and an intangible sense of fun.
Helen Anker and Jeff McCarthy as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins have an undeniable onstage chemistry that pleasingly draws out the multilayered tensions between the Cockney flower girl and the priggish word specialist, and it’s done with a welcome restraint. There are shades of romantic and, yes, sexual tension beneath Anker and McCarthy’s continuous sparring, convincingly underpinned with harsh social class realities that are by no means sugarcoated. McCarthy’s Henry is indeed a figure who earns laughs, but he’s also a nasty piece of work—and the two realities are allowed to coexist.
Much of the credit here is due to director Joe Dowling, whose touch with the political and social currents beneath interpersonal reality is showcased—the musical endures because of its passel of unstoppable tunes, no doubt, but also because its complexity has been evergreen in our society since its creation.
My Fair Lady is closing out the current season on the Guthrie’s thrust stage, and Dowling will also be directing three productions in the season to come—his 20th and final with the theater. A Midsummer Night’s Dream returns from previous iterations and, while never characterized as a work of restraint, has also become a Dowling signature (and has been wildly entertaining in the past). He’ll also direct Juno and the Paycock, the Sean Casey play that Dowling first directed on Broadway, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which Dowling has never tackled but which fits snugly in the theater’s wheelhouse as an American classic with literary cachet.
This feels about right—Dowling’s as thorough a stage veteran as they come, and he’s essentially always grounded in a respect for the ephemeral connection between the mind of the author, the text, the actors, and the audience. This is what’s most apparent in his best work—including the relatively unheralded but sparkling Time Stands Still from 2012, which left me wishing Dowling would delve into contemporary work more as a go-to than exception. An abiding adherence to stagecraft pervades in his approach, ultimately, which will be in abudant display during the next 12 months before epochal change at the Guthrie. Joe Dowling: Catch him while you can.
My Fair Lady plays at the Guthrie through August 31.