The current Shaw Festival production of Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday is a delightful romp through the mind of a classic blonde bombshell as she awakens to a world of corrupt politics in the luxury of a posh Washington, DC hotel suite.
Designer Sue LePage has created a gorgeous set resplendent in soft beige, providing the perfect framework for the star’s costumes, ranging from lavish fur pieces to black lace lounging ensembles. This lush yet subtle palette allows the character of Billie Dawn, played to perfection by Deborah Hay, to sweep from one scene to the next with a grace and vitality that makes her every move worth watching. Hay has marked Billie’s accent, her graceful movements and her world-wise, gangster-inhabited cynicism with a wide-eyed curiosity that blossoms with comic perfection from beginning to end.
Although skillful and complementary to Billie’s metamorphosis, the rest of the cast never hits the high notes that Hay achieves throughout. Thom Marriot, as Billie’s corrupt, politician-buying paramour, pushes the violent edge of the character beyond comedy and into disturbing moments of brutality that may be essential for his character yet seem at odds with Kanin’s dramaturgy. Although the character is written as a manipulative, objectifying villain, his brash masculinity might have softened at particular moments in order to meld more comfortably with the play’s comic overtones, revealing another side of his character that may have attracted Billie to him in the first place. Although her “kept woman” agenda is clear from the start, there are layers of attraction between the two men she falls for that have not been fully developed in the current production.
Gray Powell’s Paul Verell, as Billie’s bespectacled love interest who encourages her to develop a more politically astute view of world culture and politics, does not achieve the kind of debonair animal attractiveness that might have signalled the immediate magnetism that occurs between the two.
Nevertheless this is a beautiful production that rides solely on the shoulders of an actress who has taken an iconic part, originated by comic genius Judy Holliday, and made it her own. The ensemble supports her adequately but might have spent more time developing characters that, by degree, would have animated Kanin’s script with somewhat more intricate emotional tones. Patrick Galligan’s Ed Devery comes close as he presents a suave, embittered lawyer, and rises to the occasion in his final declamatory lines regarding the state of world politics. But he never matches Hay’s sharp characterization.
The degrees of quirky, idiosyncratic timing that director Gina Wilkinson has achieved with Hay might have been applied more intricately to her supporting cast. Born Yesterday is a difficult star vehicle to manoeuvre and Wilkinson has achieved a first-rate production that wavers only slightly, and paradoxically, due to the immense talent of the central character. Billie Dawn is written to upstage all that surrounds her, and Hay’s rendition is a mesmerizing example of high-powered star presence.