SAN DIEGO — "I have grown accustomed . . . " begins Henry Higgins, and we half-expect to hear the orchestra sneak in. But this is "Pygmalion" at the Old Globe Theatre, not "My Fair Lady," and the passage ends without violins: " . . . to your voice and appearance."
A disappointment? Not to Shaw fans. "My Fair Lady" has a lovely score, but it gets the end of the story wrong. Eliza does not go back to that brute Higgins. The Life Force has more important tasks for Eliza than to fetch some old bachelor's slippers. She goes off to marry Freddy and they start a flower shop.
It's good to get that straight at the Old Globe. Certainly there's no question of Barbara Dirickson's vital Eliza settling down with Ellis Rabb's ethereal Higgins. As his hair suggests a gone-to-seed dandelion, his manner suggests that one puff would blow him away.
This is Higgins as dancing master, precisely the charge that Eliza brings against him, when she's trying to taunt him in their famous last-act fight. Rabb also does very well in establishing Higgins as permanently affianced to his mother (Irene Tedrow), another point that Shaw makes.
But where Shaw wants Higgins to be a blazing intellectual bully who would sacrifice even his mother if it would bring the world around to his way of thinking--in short, another G.B.S.--Rabb makes him an invalid child idly dressing up a doll that he has called Liza, just to pass the time.
Naturally, he mistreats the doll: careless children do. We can share Eliza's frustration in trying to touch this odd man, to make herself real to him. Shaw's Higgins cares--for his principles, if not for Eliza. For all his fine speeches, Rabb's Higgins is languid and disaffected, with more than a touch of the 18th-Century dandy about him. Strange.
A revisionist director might have done something with this. He might have suggested in that final tableau--Higgins roaring with laughter at the thought of "Liza" marrying Freddy (James R. Winker)--that there's something to be pitied in this man. O'Brien marks the moment so lightly that we're somewhat surprised to find it's the end of the play.
Yet this isn't a glib production. Besides being well-spoken and unstintingly designed (sets by Richard Seger, costumes by Robert Morgan), it has a humanity and a thoughtfulness not always seen in Shaw stagings. None of these characters is a talking doll, certainly not Dirickson's Eliza.
Funny and rowdy when needed, she's in real pain when she comes home after her triumph and hears Higgins and Pickering (Sydney Walker) talking about her as if she weren't there. The problem of her future also begins to sink in. How does a "lady" who isn't a lady make her way in the world?
The scene is far superior to the jolly "I Could Have Danced All Night" business in "My Fair Lady," and O'Brien lets it proceed at its own pace, in the half-dark. Another unexpected little pang comes in the drawing-room scene, when Freddy's mother (June Claman) quietly reveals to Higgins' mother how badly off she and her children are, although keeping up the pretenses of aristocracy.
Sydney Walker's Pickering has feelings as well. They include an innate respect for females, even when they are reduced to selling flowers on the street. Eric Christmas doesn't go in for fine feelings as Alfred Doolittle--he's got a living to make--but he is as likable and as shrewd a reprobate as ever donned a top hat. It's fun, too, to see Alfred P. as a little guy, a scrapper.
On balance, then, this "Pygmalion" has plenty of rewards, including visual ones. (Seger's settings, for instance, are big solid ones that seem to change in a half-second's darkness.) The puzzle is Rabb's interpretation of Higgins. As a Henry James character once said: "What do you, beautifully, want?" Perhaps this will become clearer as the run of the play continues.
'PYGMALION' Bernard Shaw's play, at the Old Globe Theatre, San Diego. Executive producers Donald and Darlene Shiley. Director Jack O'Brien. Scenic designer Richard Seger. Costume designer Robert Morgan. Lighting designer Robert Peterson. Sound designer Michael Holten. Production stage manager Douglas Pagliotti. Stage manager Maria Carrera. With Caroline Smith, June Claman, Neil Alan Tadken, James R. Winker, Barbara Dirickson, Sydney Walker, Ellis Rabb, William Downe, Cherie L. Brown, Deena Burke, Mark Hofflund, Dorothy Milne, Ron Richards, Myra Carter, Eric Christmas, Irene Tedrow. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Closes Jan. 12. Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park. (619) 239-2255.