George Bernard Shaw has a theater festival in Ontario dedicated to him, but that aside, he doesn't seem to have a large or enduring fan base anymore. Many people know him only obliquely through My Fair Lady, the musical adaptation of his stage play Pygmalion. Shaw, like his contemporary Oscar Wilde, can seem witty and wheezy at the same time: the wordplay blazingly fresh as it cuts and thrusts around subjects that seem a bit dog-eared.

Candida, first produced in 1898 and now playing at Performance Network, is a perfect example. Like all other playwrights of the early twentieth century, Shaw was fascinated with the question of the idle upper-middle-class woman and her possible redundancy. Progressive doctrines of the time dictated that she be treated as man's equal, but what did that mean, exactly? Who would bake the cookies? Hillary Clinton was to run aground nearly a century later trying to navigate this dilemma, and so it isn't surprising that Shaw, progressive socialist that he was, had trouble conceiving of a world in which women weren't spending a good deal of their time fussing over men — baking cookies, straightening neckties, and providing other soft, delicate touches — even though his politics told him women should be doing more important things.

Candida is a woman fully caught up in running a large, busy household, which revolves around her husband, a popular socialist preacher. As the play begins, a young poet has fallen in love with her and wishes to remove her from what he sees as her demeaning and unromantic role as household commissar. Candida's two men reveal themselves to be limited, amiable dolts, while Candida is a woman of ravishing charm and penetrating intellect who deftly and effortlessly puts them both in their place. It's funny and bracing. If this is Shaw's answer to Ibsen's A Doll's House, which tackled roughly the same territory, but tragically — well, Shaw totally cheated. If Candida actually existed the way Shaw created her, she'd have ended up prime minister, not happily brushing the lint off the Reverend Mr. Morell's greatcoat.

All the actors function smoothly in this production, and the pretty jewel-box set and bandbox costumes are delicious. Most notable is Teri Clark Linden, a perfectly gorgeous Candida with her incandescent smile, musical voice, and taut body alert to every actor's smallest movement. Shaw, of course, loved to wring meaning from accents, and it's a pity some of this production's weren't a little more carefully honed (maybe they will be eventually: I saw this performance in preview). Maybe using accents at all is a wasted exercise;

they can't convey to an American audience the enormous wealth of class information they would convey to a British one. Otherwise, it's a clever, pretty period piece.

Candida runs Thursday-Sunday through April 15.

[Review published April 2007]