“Take me to church,” I crooned to my Uber driver on Saturday, Nov. 10, inaudibly instructing him to bring me to St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Towson, where Third Wall Productions would be presenting the musical My Fair Lady.
Admittedly, I initially found the sanctuary to be an interesting choice of venue, but the statue of Jesus looming behind the stage didn’t steal a single decibel of thunder from the show’s electrifying cast.
In particular, the University’s very own professor Jason Eisner shone, successfully portraying fellow Linguistics Professor Henry Higgins as someone with whom the audience could at least begin to sympathize — despite his arrogance, rudeness and belief that women’s “heads are full of cotton, hay and rags.” Eisner delivered an impressive English accent and captured his character’s amusingly eccentric mannerisms with perfection.
Jessica Preactor’s performance of Eliza Doolittle, dare I say it, gave Audrey Hepburn a run for her money (Hepburn co-starred as Eliza in the 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady). Preactor, who recently graduated from New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy, was lovable and evocative; she skillfully rendered Eliza’s metamorphosis from, as Higgins puts it, a “squashed cabbage leaf” into the enchanting “Queen of Sheba.” The changing cadences of her speech and the evolving subtleties of her behavior were spot-on. Plus, she was an impeccable singer.
Higgins, in many ways, is the architect of those transformations. Believing that social class distinctions have nothing to do with money but instead depend on how well one speaks, Higgins bets fellow phonetician Colonel Hugh Pickering (played by the hilarious Patrick Martyn) that he can pass Cockney flower girl Eliza — who comes to him for voice lessons, thinking this will allow her to work in a florist’s shop — off as a duchess at a ball in six months. At one point, Higgins deprives her of food until she can properly enunciate vowels, as if she were a lab rat. This comes as no surprise, given that Higgins proudly proclaims that he doesn’t think Eliza has feelings.
Eliza’s performance at the ball is so flawless that Higgins’ rival suspects her of secretly being a Hungarian princess because she speaks better than any native English speaker would. Yet Higgins and Pickering give her no credit for this accomplishment, instead priding themselves on a successful experiment. After Pickering goes to bed, Higgins asks Eliza to leave the housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (played by Tracey Grimes, whose recurring look of disgust reminded me of Toni Collette’s in Hereditary) a note saying that he wants coffee instead of tea in the morning. And so Eliza sheds her facade of passivity; she throws Higgins his slippers at him.
“What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What’s to become of me?” she asks. Indeed, her only option in a patriarchal society appears to be marriage; she cannot return to her old life, where she enjoyed greater independence. Higgins has, of course, given Eliza’s future no thought. She leaves 27A Wimpole Street, returning the ring Higgins bought her, recognizing that she doesn’t need him.
“Without pulling it the tide comes in. / Without your twirling it, the Earth can spin. / Without your pushing them, the clouds roll by. / If they can do without you, ducky so can I,” she sings.
On the other hand, Higgins ultimately recognizes that he’s “grown accustomed to her face” — that he needs her, though he insists that he’d never take her back. However, while he’s listening to old recordings of her voice, she walks in, giving Higgins a second chance.
“I washed my face and hands before I come, I did,” she says, mocking what she said the day she moved in.
“Where the devil are my slippers?” he asks, hinting that Eliza and Higgins have a chance at a potential romantic future.
But George Bernard Shaw, who in 1912 wrote Pygmalion, the play of which My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation, would have loathed this “happy ending.” In 1916, he wrote a postscript to Pygmalion in which Eliza marries suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill (played by Kevin James Logan, who sang beautifully).
The fairy-tale ending of My Fair Lady utterly misses Pygmalion’s point, though it is what Shaw intentionally leads us to at least initially expect. Indeed, Pygmalion’s namesake is a figure in Greek mythology who builds a statue of the perfect woman and subsequently falls in love with his literal object of desire. The goddess of love, hearing Pygmalion’s prayers, transforms the beautiful sculpture into a living, breathing woman. Not unlike a duckling being hatched, Galatea first opens her eyes to Pygmalion kissing her. She is shortly married, without a say, to her creator thereafter.
Similarly, in the Victorian era, the ideals of womanhood were carved by men; women were taught to behave in devoted deference to their husbands. Higgins sculpts Eliza into submission, her sole purpose in his eyes to satisfy his needs — be his toy, keep track of his appointments. But Shaw sought to deviate from the Pygmalion myth and defy Victorian conventions. In Pygmalion, Eliza does not end up a codependent Galatea who needs to marry her Pygmalion; she abandons her creator and becomes the prosperous owner of a flower shop, Freddy right by her side. She empowers herself instead of having her freedom taken away.
By contrast, My Fair Lady’s feel-good ending is misogynistic. One might argue that Higgins has begun to see Eliza as more than just a plaything — or, as his mother (played by the talented Becky Unkenholz) describes, “a live doll.” But Eliza deserves to finish the transformation Higgins has catalyzed on her own terms. I despise a future where she ends up marrying someone who hopes to mold her into the perfect angel.
That said, aside from its ending, My Fair Lady does a good job of satirizing misogyny. In addition, Shaw’s ending, though admirably feminist, is probably unrealistic. As Time points out, Eliza, having “no family connections, no money and no formal education... has nowhere to go but back to the streets (or away with the insipid and financially dubious Freddy).” Marrying Higgins is the practical choice among her limited options as a woman of her time.
I may have spoiled the ending for you, but, if you’re here for Thanksgiving break, you still ought to see My Fair Lady for yourself on Nov. 16, 17 or 18.
If Higgins isn’t enough to entice you, he isn’t the only character played by a Hopkins affiliate. Maxine Stitzer-Hodge, who plays, among other roles, Freddy’s mother, is a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the School of Medicine, and Forest Deal, who plays Eliza’s father, worked at the University’s Applied Physics Laboratory for over 30 years.