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Review: ‘A Minister’s Wife’ at the Glencoe Writers’ Theatre

We are told that when God created the world, it was good. What would he say now?

So begins A Ministers Wife, an explosive musical playing through July 19 at the Glencoe Writers Theatre.

It is a line fitting of the lead character, Reverend James Morell, played with stunning wit by Kevin Gudahl. Morell is an unabashed preacher whose charismatic delivery makes him a local celebrity in his London town and closer at home, where he is adored by wife Candida (the remarkable Kate Fry) and secretly admired by his secretary, Proserpine Garnett (Liz Baltes) while also idolized by his apprentice, Reverend Alexander Mill (John Sanders).

But theres one character who isnt so fond of Morell, his theology or his philosophy: the young poet Eugene Marchbanks (in a stunning introduction of Alan Schmuckler) who jabs at the Reverends gift of gab and threatens the security of his marriage by swearing to save his beloved Candida from a trivialized life of glamorized falsehood and domestic imprisonment.

As A Ministers Wife goes on, it soon becomes an exploration of the institutions of marriage and religion, rocked by the emblematic tension of a dreamer and truth-seeker who are both out to change the world.

Set in the Victorian Age on the east end of London on an early October morning, the play is adapted from George Bernard Shaws Candida with the new addition of Sondheim-inspired music and lyrics, performed by an in-house chamber orchestra. The orchestras score provides the perfect spotlight to illuminate the tensions brewing in the otherwise seemingly perfect Morell household.

The play is a dark reminder of how appearances can be humanly deceiving, especially when one such as the young Marchbanks dares to reveal the man behind the curtains. In this one facet especially, the play succeeds, taking an oafish, self-conscious teenager and successfully convincing us that he can be an apt protaganist to shake the self-constructed altar that Morell has created for himself.

As Morell self-destructs, Candida realizes she has created a life of comfort for a man she barely sees, and Prosperine begins to fall instead for the attractive humility of Mill.
What makes A Ministers Wife work is its ability to shed light on so many layers of a complex story without trying so hard to be a complex piece of theater. Each actor and actress adds weight to his or her role with concise, spot-on delivery and impeccable timing, creating one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory.

What hurts this play, though, is its exorbitant musical numbers that distract from the adapted words of playwright Austin Pendleton and become downright obtuse in heated moments of battle or passion.

If this play is to have us believe that Morell has created an empire and image on words and words alone, then it might well have been better positioned in dramatic monologues and dialogue that read like the story that narrates itself onstage. Much like Morells experience, this holier-than-thou stylistic approach can make believers out of some and skeptics out of others.

Tickets for A Ministers Wife are $40 to $65. Call 847-242-6000 for tickets. The show is being performed at 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe.

Selena Fragassi grew up on the North Shore. She is an assistant music editor at Venus Zine and has written for Time Out Chicago, Paste Magazine and Newcity Chicago Magazine.


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