Widowers' Houses, ShawChicago, at the Chicago Cultural Center. George Bernard Shaw's earliest attempt at playwriting makes one wonder how he ever mustered the courage to produce a single subsequent work, let alone assumed the mantle of a great dramatist. After reconciling himself to failure in his career as a novelist, Shaw literally scribbled this bleak 1892 expose of London slumlords on scraps of paper and persuaded an unsuspecting theater owner to produce the play sight unseen. Critics savaged it, and scores of audience members walked out after intermission, yet the provocative Widowers' Houses managed to send a ripple through the theatrical community.
Over a century later, the flaws in Shaw's play are every bit as glaring: this is certainly the most undernourished of his works for the stage. But his unique vision still shines through, particularly his Marxist ideas, especially resonant in this blunt, polemical work. Admirably, ShawChicago has made no attempt to smooth over the play's excesses in this concert reading, an approach seen best in Terence Gallagher's gloriously lowbrow performance as the bottom-feeding rent collector Lickcheese. Even this pitch-perfect staging by Robert Scogin can't spin straw into gold, but ultimately it triumphs through its lack of prejudice and pretense, managing to make the play appear both an artless first effort and a dialectical masterpiece. Here ShawChicago reveres not Shaw the great dramatist but Shaw the iconoclast.