The Fair Lady Meets Her Doctor

Robert Sean Leonard is no stranger to research. Robin Williams taught him a thing or two about it in 1989’s “Dead Poets Society.” And then, of course, there are the eight seasons worth of his role as oncologist Dr. Wilson, Hugh Laurie’s beloved and sensible on-and-off best friend from “House.” With this track record, it should come as no surprise that Leonard’s return to the Old Globe Theatre (“King Lear” in 1993 was his first time on this stage) is as Professor Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” an experimenting linguist determined to transform a spitfire simpleton (Charlotte Parry) into a proper English duchess. Leonard brings a fully present, fully physical madness to Higgins, who is first seen onstage not really seen at all, as an inscrutable man hunched in a corner, taking notes on the accent of one brash, loud-mouthed cockney flower girl loitering outside a church garden as bourgeois Londoners take shelter from an unexpected downpour.

From here, the comical metamorphosis unfolds — Higgins, along with fellow linguist Colonel Pickering (played by a gentile Paxton Whitehead), begins a quest to turn the grunting Eliza Doolittle into a sophisticated lady-in-waiting, complete with silk gowns a la “Memoirs of a Geisha” and a list of chores appropriate for a newly trained woman (she must keep track of both Higgins’ appointments and his slippers). Throw in a grandiose collection of affluent witnesses to the whole affair and Don Spark’s boorish, hilarious Mr. Doolittle — the most charming swindler since Frank Abagnale Jr. (clad in a sun-shielding safari hat and a knapsack, no less) — and San Diego seems to have thrust us a lovely British affair.

Mostly British, at least. For a play centered on accents, there wasn’t much to be said for the English dialects of the supporting cast, most of whom wavered in and out of their drawls while others apparently enjoyed changing birthplaces all together. Save for that, though, director Nicholas Martin begets an exquisite rendition of the classic tale. The set is intricate and lush, featuring a resplendent composition of burgundy, olive and gold tones. It’s a comforting backdrop to Higgins’ disheveled, filled-to-the-rafters work space (which quite reflects his mind) and the scintillating chandelier and white pillars that adorn his mother’s living room bring to mind the Greek myth that inspired the play’s name.

Costume designer Robert Morgan brought to life early 20th-century London with keen attention to detail and a focus on the economic classes of each character, from the twill browns of the lower-middle class to the hoity-toity pearls and peaches of the upper. All of this — the rotating set, the costumes, the delicate lighting — though rich with grandeur, would’ve been too much for such a quaint stage had the performances not been able to stand so assuredly on their own.

Charlotte Parry’s Eliza is impossible not to root for, from her charming pidgeon-like grunts to her wide-eyed desire to succeed — whether or not she wants to admit it. In Act III, there’s an especially riveting moment when Parry, during her first outing with sophisticated company, goes on a rant about the supposed murder of her grandmother (in a proper English accent, of course). She’s given the “shut up” groan from a fretful — but wryly smiling — Higgins, causing her to stop, mid-poisoning-grandma-sentence, and declare, “Well, I must go,” before she eerily shakes everyone’s hand with a dreamy, glazed disposition like that of a drugged madman.

Robert Sean Leonard, a mad scientist of language and a madder gentleman in general, is a fiery match for Eliza. It’s easy to see the passion he feels for his work; Leonard falls into his words with his entire body, flinging pointing fingers in nondescript directions and plummeting for the safety of his couch at every new realization or humourous discovery.

Their chemistry and the back-and-forth quipping that goes on between them in the beginning and end of the play is matched only by the quiet resignation evident in the eye of the storm. It’s heartbreaking to watch Eliza’s whiplashing horse of a mouth be broken by Higgins (through insults and heckling) and Pickering (by means of polite ignorance) as they treat her like a nonexistent toy doll. By the time she finally throws Higgins’ slippers back at his face and lets those beastly grunts be known again, we’re as fed up with the two chortling fellows as she is.

That’s the moral of the whole thing, really. As Eliza remarks in the last scene, “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.” Though the taboo curse words of their day — like “devil” and “bloody” — may have turned into staples of the English language, the desire to be appreciated and, even more, respected, has stayed a firm wish of humanity.

The final moment of “Pygmalion,” features a resigned Higgins looking up at Eliza and her new husband on their wedding day (an imagined vision), laughing at the idea of his bewitching creation marrying “Freddy,” is poignant not just for his vulnerabilities, but for hers; even with her newfound self-respect and independence, Eliza can’t help looking back at the man who taught her everything she shouldn’t be.