'She Stoops To Conquer' with a Montana accent

It's unlikely that Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith ever saw a big sky -- unless you count that patch of gray he might have seen while lying on his back in a Dublin meadow. But under the sparkling adaptive direction of Bill Brown, the 18th Century comedy "She Stoops To Conquer" proves remarkably willing to take a boat to Montana.

Tempting as it may be, the addition of rural American motifs to period Anglo-Irish comedy has produced plenty of fool's gold. Some of us are still recovering from a tedious mongrel called "The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas." And over the years, I've seen a few too many Beatrices and Benedicks running around in chaps.

But "She Stoops" works surprisingly well up at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Aside from supremely careful execution, a light touch and a lovely original score from Andrew Hansen, it's mostly because Brown -- a skilled director with a very precise sense of what he wants -- has found a concept that both fits and illuminates the fun of the play.

Brown, who first worked on such a concept for a 2003 summer project in Montana, lets the upscale, uptight pair of Charles Marlow and George Hastings remain Englishmen. But their journey to the "country" in pursuit of two eligible young ladies has involved an 1895 trip across the Atlantic. And thus Kate Hardcastle becomes a comely young Western gal with frontier ways, the Three Pigeons becomes a rollicking saloon and Bartender Bet becomes a balladeer of pioneer stock.

Because Brown makes Hardcastle, Kate's dad, a Scots emigre, this doesn't push credulity too much. In many ways, it improves the play.

"She Stoops," still a fixture in the English theatrical repertory, always suffered from this silly affectation of townspeople being a couple of hours from home yet acting as if they'd landed on Mars. In Brown's take, the esoteric class machinations, miscommunication and humor that inform most of the classic stranger-in-a-strange-land comedy in the piece are dexterously applied to British-American relations at the time. And, heck, it could be anytime.

When you add a lot of western-style music -- some of which cleverly pulls lyrics from other Goldsmith material -- you have a thoroughly appealing show, aside from a small sag in creativity shortly after intermission.

Contrary to what a lot of directors think, Goldsmith was a million miles from the restoration satirist. He intended the effect of this, his laughing comedy, to be somewhat akin to the feelings of affectionate, warm benevolence that one gets, say, when one sees a really decent production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." And that's precisely the mood evoked here. You'll be surprised at the wafts of benevolence flowing out from the stage and the language couldn't be clearer.

The performers are as warm and genial as a Chicago spring of your hopeless fantasies, especially Kymberly Mellen's ripe, hearty Kate and Timothy Edward Kane's Marlow, lovably confused in a way that applies to many Englishmen. As Hardcastle, John Lister has a thicker, funnier accent than Billy Connelly.

And as his shrewish spouse, the redoubtable, hysterical Linda Kimbrough proves once again that she was born 300 years too late.

"She Stoops To Conquer"

When: Through April 29

Where: North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $34-$54 at 847-673-6300