As his setting for “The Devil’s Disciple,” the entertaining satire now at Vokes, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw chose New Hampshire. It is 1777, just before the decisive Revolutionary War battle at Saratoga, New York. But Shaw’s colonists are not militants. Although they privately ridicule George III, they’re careful to avoid trouble with redcoats.
The majority, particularly Mrs. Dudgeon (Sheila Kadra), focus their energy on practicing a harsh and unforgiving piety that barely disguises self-interest. Mrs. Dudgeon’s eldest son, a smuggler and general ne’er-do-well, despises their cruel morality and keeps his distance. The locals refer to him as the Devil’s Disciple, following his mother’s lead (“If I am against him, who has any right to be for him?”).
Dick Dudgeon (Wayland resident Grant Evans Wood) returns suddenly to town, where he still finds the locals so coldly self-righteous he can’t resist bedeviling them by fanning his reputation. But as the realities of war intrude, the Devil’s Disciple is tested in new ways, and both the town’s and Dudgeon’s preconceptions get revised.
Director John Barrett seems to favor the great classics of the stage. In this production, he again shows that a true classic’s power and humor is forever fresh. Although the Vokes production gets off to a stiff start as it establishes the confusing relationships of the characters, it picks up steam with the appearance of Wood and reaches its peak in the second act, when a hilarious Gen. Burgoyne (James Ewell Brown, who is really director Barrett) weighs in at Dudgeon’s perfunctory trial for treason.
This production has two cores: the philosophy core and the entertainment core. At the heart of the script itself is the speech in which a newly introspective Dudgeon tries to understand why he suddenly chose martyrdom. It was not for the sake of the minister whose place he takes in prison and only partly for the minister’s wife. The reason lies in his personal morality, previously unconscious. His nonreligious code of honor having long been his only guide in a world of confused morality, he cannot see himself letting another man die in his stead.
The entertainment core is Barrett, shorn of his beard, in the role of Gen. Burgoyne. Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne is alone worth the price of admission. Once he appears, the play’s energy accelerates and the threads of the story whip together to weave a satisfying ending in which everyone who ought to triumph does.
The familiar Shavian ruminations on religion, justice and politics retain their relevance undimmed. Death penalties that favor political agendas, for example, are not unheard of in our imperfectly evolved world. And lest anyone look at the Vokes gallows and think all this quite remote, consider that the play’s locale, New Hampshire, still authorizes hanging and that Delaware demolished its own gallows two weeks ago.
One consideration: Vokes might benefit in the future from more attention to helping actors look more like the people they play. It’s a common community-theater challenge, and one that other groups unfortunately solve by casting people who look right but can’t act. Still, when a grown woman plays a girl, considerable effort should go into making her seem a girl. If a stage wife is in her 20s and her husband in his 50s, their hair, makeup and movement may need extra work. At Vokes, the dashing young Dudgeon, the youthful heroine and her 50-year-old husband all look about the same age, muddying a critical theme.
Julie LaCivita played Essie; Evan Bernstein was Christy; David Berti, Rev. Anthony Anderson; Melissa Sine was Judith Anderson. Gregory Mattingly, Kate Mahoney, Dave Dobson, Teri McDonald, Robert Mackie, Brian McNamara, Jonathan Ashford (funny as the clueless British major, Swindon), John Chiachiaretta, Gregory Eburn, Brian McDonald, Michael Donohue, Cameron Wood and D Schweppe rounded out the cast.
Most scenes took place in a serviceable wood-paneled room with tall, brick fireplace. The set folded out cleverly to create a town square with gallows. The lighting was the work of Daniel Clawson, and the period costumes were designed by Erin Korey.
“The Devil’s Disciple” continues through Aug. 2. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.