WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. If you only know of the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmallion” as the source material for the musical “My Fair Lady,” you really don’t know the work. “Pygmailion” is a biting, funny social satire about women’s rights and class distinctions.
The production of the Shaw play, which is at Williamstown Theatre Festival through Sunday, is a revelation. Yes, there are a couple of times – like when Henry Higgins says of Eliza,“I’ve grown accustomed to her face” - you expect him to burst into song. However the play is not a romantic vehicle as is the musical and film.
The plot is familiar. Henry Higgins is a linguist expert who takes in Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower girl, and on a bet converts her into a lady. By removing her Cockney accent and teaching her to speak in an upper-class fashion, she is accepted in high society as a lady.
The problem is once Eliza becomes refined, she realizes she cannot return to her lower class roots and because her conversion to sophistication is only superficial, she is aware she will not fit into a world of wealth and privilege.
One solution is to marry into the upper class, which Shaw eagerly points out is merely another form of prostitution.
As Eliza, Heather Lind makes a wonderful journey from street smart young girl to a strong woman. Lind has a wonderful scene in which she speaks like a lady while thinking like a flower girl. It’s funny but also signals her self-confidence and sense of self that she later displays in the final scene as she finds her power over Higgins.
Lind is a joy as Eliza, however, this production belongs to Robert Sean Leonard who plays Higgins as an emotionally-stunted man-boy. Leonard is wonderful as he shows his bewilderment with the demands others make on him in name of good behavior. He is perfectly honest when he wonders why Eliza would be hurt by his bad behavior since he behaves badly with everyone else. It’s a smartly drawn portrait of an individual who represents those who are granted power and privilege simply as a birthright.
As if to emphasize the women’s secret power in a society dominated by men, director Nicholas Martin casts strong women in every role. Maureen Alderman is no-nonsense tough as Higgin’s mother and Caitlin O’Connell is the most caring person in the household as the disapproving Mrs. Pierce.
The men are also strong in support. Paxton Whitehead is a droll but sensitive Colonel Pickering and Don Lee Sparks dominates in his two comic scenes as Eliza’s father - a man who loves his poverty and is offended by his eventual respectability.
It’s all played on a beautiful set designed by Alexander Dodge and made lovely with costumes by Gabriel Berry.
You might not leave the main stage of Williamstown Theatre Festival singing any songs, but you will leave singing the praises of a superior production of a 100 year old play.
“Pygmalion” at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass. Through Sunday. 413-597-3400, wtfestival.org