Brusque and affable phonetics scholar Henry Higgins (former American Conservatory Theater core company member Anthony Fusco) bets that he can pass off a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Cal Shakes newcomer Irene Lucio), as a duchess by teaching her how to speak proper English.
His colleague Col. Pickering (an ideally cast L. Peter Callender) takes him up on the wager. Eliza, eager to better her lot in life, willingly assumes the role of guinea pig in their lofty experiment — a project that will transform her in unexpected ways.
The play, full of Shavian social commentary, is rich with nuance and humor and, at the end, a touching poignancy.
As the two central characters, Lucio and Fusco seem born to the roles. Lucio’s Eliza matures quite convincingly, during the course of five scenes (and six months), from feisty, shrieking “guttersnipe,” as Higgins calls her, to graceful and articulate womanhood.
And Fusco turns in a beautifully understated Higgins, clueless and self-involved — a man who will never change despite the efforts of the more evolved women who surround him and even cater to him: his mother (a steely-eyed, sweetly smiling Sharon Lockwood), his housekeeper (Catherine Castellanos in a sharply defined portrayal) and diamond-in-the-rough Eliza herself.
In a couple of particularly delicious scenes, local treasure (and Cal Shakes regular) James Carpenter appears as Eliza’s sly, even impish, ne’er-do-well dad, ranting against “middle-class morality” and staunchly defending his position as one of the “undeserving poor.”
And a scene in which the almost-reconstructed Eliza makes her first tentative foray into society, complete with stiff mannerisms and over-articulated pronunciation, is hilarious.
Among the other principals, all excellent, are Julie Eccles as a fluttery society matron, with Elyse Price as her snobbish daughter and Nicholas Pelczar as her hapless son, Freddy.
The elegant period costumes are by Anna Oliver, and the set is cleverly designed (by Annie Smart) to change from study to parlor with very little fuss. It should also be noted that the Bay Area’s go-to dialect coach, Lynne Soffer, is essential to the play’s success.
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 24
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org