You Never Can Tell
(L to R) Sabina Zuniga Varela as Gloria, Lance Gardner as Philip, and Khalia Davis as Dolly. Photo by Kevin Berne.

You Never Can Tell

Shaw comes to Santa Cruz, 1890-style

Written by George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Lisa Peterson

Starring Matthew Baldiga, Elizabeth Carter, Danny Scheie, Sabina Zuniga Varela

California Shakespeare Theater, Orinda California 

Until September 4, 2016

“You Never Can Tell” is an early work of Shaw’s, written in 1896, while he was still honing his craft. He wanted to both entertain and educate his audience, and mainly he accomplished this, for the play as written is largely lighthearted and breezy, yet contains sparks of Shaw’s philosophy of women’s independence and marriage. Yet, this production, absent the comic gifts of Danny Scheie, and the enthusiasm of Khalia Davis and Lance Gardner, could benefit from faster pacing and a bit more vitality and elan.

In Cal Shakes’ production, the setting is the 1890s, in a town much like Santa Cruz, California, rather than the English seaside resort in the original script. I was grateful that the actors didn’t need to affect English accents, which I find disruptive, if not done well.

The plot revolves around Mrs. Clandon (Elizabeth Carter), her staid and somber older daughter, Gloria (Sabina Zuniga Varela) and her animated 18 year-old twins Dolly (Khalia Davis) and Phillip (Lance Gardner), who have all just returned after an eighteen-year stay in Caracas, Venezuela. Mrs. Clandon had moved there to escape the domineering husband she left in England. While in Caracas, she wrote “Twentieth Century Treatises,” a best-selling series expounding her progressive feminist philosophy on gender relations, parenting, cooking, conduct and clothing, which her children regularly recite.

The children have been kept in the dark about their father, until a happenstance meeting at the office of Valentine, the impecunious dentist (nicely done by Matthew Baldiga) results in the family lunching with Valentine and their long-lost father, Fergus Crampton (Michael Torres). At first, the children want nothing to do with their unknown and obstreperous father, who claims he is due their love and loyalty by virtue of their genetic connection (“… because I am your father …”).

In the meantime, Valentine has fallen in love with Gloria. However, Gloria, her mother’s daughter, is a modern woman who has little interest in love and none in marriage. She personifies Shaw’s philosophy about women retaining their autonomy in marriage, which he later expounded upon in “Man and Superman” (1903). I enjoyed watching Valentine and Gloria negotiate their way through their difficulties with the institution of marriage, while in the throes of love and attraction for each other.

The glue that holds this production together is Danny Scheie as the streetwise Irish waiter whose stage presence, timing and delivery are so perfect that he can make the word “Chardonnay” hilarious. Both overtly attentive and subtlety sardonic, he continually reassures the obstinate lovers and family members who oppose reconciliation with the commonplace phrase, “You never can tell.” Yet, his encouragement ultimately enables all parties to find their way.

“You Never Can Tell” gives a nod to Shaw’s contemporary, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” with its confused identities. Though lacking Wilde’s sparkle and wit, Shaw adds his modern thoughts on love and marriage to his play. Somehow the screwball comedic aspects of what Shaw referred to as one of his “Pleasant Plays,” and its happy-ever-after ending don’t meld perfectly with Shaw’s deeper thoughts. Nevertheless, “You Never Can Tell” is enjoyable and definitely worth seeing.

By Emily S. Mendel

© Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for