Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith’s SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER had its premiere at London’s Covent Garden Theatre on March 15, 1773. So what better place than Philadelphia’s historic Powel House–built in 1765 and celebrating its 250th anniversary this year—for its resident company, The Mechanical Theater, to stage its historically faithful production? Performed in the exquisitely appointed ballroom, and employing the light of its crystal chandelier and wall sconces, the lavishly costumed romantic comedy of manners masterfully transports us into the 18th-century world of social mores, in a farce (which Goldsmith alternately titled MISTAKES OF THE NIGHT) filled with preposterously delightful deceptions, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities.
Issues of class, breeding, family fortunes, and arranged marriages drive the playfully tangled story of a mischievous hoax and resultant faux pas, mismatched couples and the triumph of true love. A splendid cast of seven, under the adroit direction of Eric Singel, captures the refinement, pretentions, impertinence, and roguishness of its respective characters with controlled comedic skill, affecting appropriate accents and executing witty sight-gags with aplomb. The actors’ precise poses, gestures, and facial expressions come straight out of carefully studied 18th-century paintings and prints, and Singel’s expert blocking likewise evokes the style of the era while making full use of the real-period architectural setting.
The terrific Jonathan Elliott Coarsey is a study in contradictions as the young Charles Marlow, rakish with servant girls and those “from Drury Lane” (read “prostitutes”!), but timid and tongue-tied around women of his own high-born status. Loretta Vasile portrays Kate Hardcastle–his well-bred intended who masquerades as a lowly barmaid to elicit his self-confidence (“she stoops to conquer”)–with a humorous mixture of social pretense, virtuous modesty, sexual flirtatiousness, and impetuous determination. Bob Mason is thoroughly likeable as Kate’s traditional but ultimately agreeable father Mr. Hardcastle, a landed gentleman who proclaims with a twinkle in his eye, “I love everything that’s old!” Her stepmother Mrs. Hardcastle, played with relish by Denise Brunker, is the epitome of snobbery, greed, and haughty affectations, and Sam Rab is a hoot as her son, the ne’er-do-well Tony Lumpkin, “an awkward booby, reared up and spoiled at his mother’s apron-string,” who initiates all the characters’ confusion with his rascally deceit, and then resolves it with a final misleading prank. Rounding out the fine ensemble are Geremy Webne-Behrman as George Hastings and Neena Boyle as Constance Neville, the best friends of Marlow and Kate, who share an impassioned secret romance despite the intent of her aunt, Mrs. Hardcastle, to marry her to Tony and thereby retain possession of the family jewels.
Aside from Goldmsith’s alternate title, there are no mistakes in this night; SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER fully embraces the spirit of its times, in a genuine production that will make you agree with Mr. Hardcastle and “love everything that’s old!” (read “classic”). [Powel House, 244 S. 3rd St.] April 9-19, 2015; Tickets.