Playwright Shaw’s fully developed characters provide actresses with chance to shine

Eileen Schuyler and Katie Ann McDermott, two of the Capital Region’s busiest and finest actresses, w
Katie Ann McDermott, left, as Ellie, is comforted by Eileen Schuyler, as Hesione, during a rehearsal for George Bernard Shaw’s "Heartbreak House" at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Katie Ann McDermott, left, as Ellie, is comforted by Eileen Schuyler, as Hesione, during a rehearsal for George Bernard Shaw’s "Heartbreak House" at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge.

Eileen Schuyler and Katie Ann McDermott didn’t have to think twice. Any actress who knows a good gig when she sees one isn’t about to say no to a George Bernard Shaw play performed at The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge.

Schuyler and McDermott, two of the Capital Region’s busiest and finest actresses, will share the Hubbard Hall stage in Shaw’s 1919 classic “Heartbreak House,” opening Friday at 8 p.m. and running through March 30. A pay-what-you-will open rehearsal will also be held tonight at 8.

“Shaw’s women are full and rich characters, and you don’t always see that,” said Schuyler, who plays Hesione Hushabye, an older married woman and a mentor to McDermott’s character, Ellie Dunn. “Even with playwrights like Arthur Miller, sometimes the women aren’t fully developed, and they just kind of hang around the men. As an actor, you have to try to make something out of something that’s not there. That’s not the case with Shaw’s women. They’re all well-drawn and fascinating, and that’s what makes his play so much fun.”

Heartbreak House

WHERE: The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall, 25 E. Main St., Cambridge

WHEN: Through March 30. Performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 22.

HOW MUCH: $35

MORE INFO: 677-2495 or www.hubbardhall.org

Schuyler, a highly sought-after character actress who has performed at Capital Repertory Theatre, the New York State Theatre Institute and Stageworks/Hudson in the past two seasons, is making her debut at Hubbard Hall. McDermott, meanwhile, an Albany native and Russell Sage graduate, is a familiar face to Hubbard Hall patrons, having performed as Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s “Pygmalion” at Hubbard Hall, as well as “The Enchanted,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Three Sisters,” “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Private Lives.”

Man before his time

“I’m a huge fan of Shaw because he really was a man before his time,” said McDermott, who went to high school at the Academy of Holy Names and interned at the New York State Theatre Institute while going to Russell Sage. “He was a vegetarian, he thought that women’s rights were very important long before there was a movement, and he was for animal rights. He was an activist, and he also wrote so many great roles for women. I love my character, and I don’t want to give anything away, but she definitely wasn’t a conventional woman.”

Shaw, the only individual to win a Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar (for “Pygmalion in 1938), wrote “Heartbreak House” in 1919, a year after World War I drew to its conclusion. It was a war Shaw publicly opposed despite the scorn of family, friends and fans, and many literary critics felt “Heartbreak House” was the result of Shaw losing some faith in humanity. In the preface to the play, Shaw wrote: “It is said that every people has the Government it deserves. It is more to the point that every Government has the electorate it deserves; for the orators of the front bench can edify or debauch an ignorant electorate at will. Thus our democracy moves in a vicious circle of reciprocal worthiness and unworthiness.”

Five short runs

“Heartbreak House” was staged five times on Broadway, none of them enjoying a long run. It’s initial production lasted four months during the 1920-21 season, and four revivals, including productions with Orson Welles (1938) and Rex Harrison (1983) in the role of Captain Shotover never lasted for more than four months.

The play is set in the home of retired British sea captain Shotover, played by Benjie White, who fears the social structure he has honored his entire life is collapsing in front of his eyes. The story line centers on Ellie, who after visiting Shotover’s oldest daughter, Hesione, is talked out of marrying a rich industrialist and suddenly finds her affections heading in another direction. Kevin McGuire, the founder of the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall, is directing the production and plays Hector Hushabye, Hesione’s husband.

“When Kevin e-mailed me to ask about the part, I couldn’t say no,” said McDermott, who is taking graduate courses at New York University and only recently returned from studying Shakespeare at the London Academy of Dramatic Arts. “It’s a great play and a great character. Shaw wanted people to be intellectuals, and he considered himself to be a citizen of the world. I had actually taken a little break from performing because of school, but to be in one of Shaw’s plays at Hubbard Hall, where I’ve learned so much in the past, was something I couldn’t pass up.”

Schuyler, who lives in Delmar, had worked with McGuire when they were two young aspiring actors in New York several years ago.

“We were in two one-act plays together at Soho Repertory a long, long time ago,” said Schuyler. “I really hadn’t been up to Hubbard Hall before I saw ‘The Elephant Man’ last season, and I was really impressed. Kevin’s done a great job, and working with him in this beautiful old hall sounded like a great opportunity. It’s been great, and this is a really talented and cohesive theater community. It’s been a great experience.”

Enjoying their roles

Stephanie Moffett Hynds, a resident of Arlington, Vt., is the third female member of the cast. She plays Hesione’s younger sister Ariadne, who returns to the family after an absence of 23 years.

“Some of the zingers I get to say are just fantastic,” said Moffett Hynds, who has performed in eight Hubbard Hall productions. “Shaw had a marvelous ability with the language, he poked fun at the upper classes, and he cared about women’s rights. I love Shaw, and working with Kevin is just a great experience. He brings an energy to the production that everyone else feels.”

While the interaction among the characters played by McDermott, Schuyler and Moffett Hynds dominate the show, White, the executive director of Hubbard Hall Projects, says his role as Captain Shotover is also quite an enjoyable one.

“Shaw’s a consummate playwright who had some great ideas,” said White. “Sure, he wrote great parts for women, but believe me, he wrote some pretty good lines for the men, too.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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