George Bernard Shaw is always nattering on, scolding and complaining about the follies of humanity. And thank heaven for that. His nattering makes for some of the richest theater on the planet. “Heartbreak House,” now being performed by The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall, is arguably one of his greatest plays, and it is being given an absolutely sparkling outing.
In his long, pessimistic preface to the play, Shaw explains that “ ‘Heartbreak House’ is cultured, leisured Europe before the war.” He was speaking in retrospect of the first World War and predicted that society was drifting toward self-destruction.
With more than a nod to Chekhov, Shaw’s privileged and self-absorbed characters are gathered in a country manor house owned by the 88-year-old sea captain, Captain Shotover (Benjie White), and they discuss many things including their marriages, their flaws and their frustrations. Shaw’s characters are allegorical. Shotover is the essence of “Old England,” displaying both the dignity and the fatigue of his source. He is at once a sea lion and an otter, a sage and a clown. Watch for his second act treatise on aging; it is a gem.
Shotover’s daughter, Hesione Hushabye (Eileen Schuyler), has invited Ellie Dunn (Katie Ann McDermott) to the family home to convince her she must not marry the rich and ruthless Alfred “Boss” Mangan (Tom Mattern), a “Captain of Industry.” Ellie has decided to marry him so that she might be lifted from her poverty and because she cannot marry her true love, Hector Hushabye (Kevin McGuire), Hesione’s husband. In true Shavian fashion, it is all very civilized; Hesione says of her husband’s infidelity, “How can you love a liar? I don’t know but fortunately you can.”
Hesione’s sister, Lady Utterword (Stephanie Moffett Hynds), joins the group after an absence of 23 years along with Mazzini Dunn (Doug Ryan), Ellie’s father, and Randall Utterword (Rick Howe), Lady Utterword’s brother-in-law. The Bohemian household is presided over by Nurse Guinness (Keelye St. John). It is a strong cast. The actors, to a person, make music of Shaw’s profundity.
McGuire, who also directed, has persuaded every nuance of the playwright’s bubbly humor, his blistering assaults on the upper classes — and his prescience — out of these characters. The actors clearly understand the relevance of the play to the goings on in present politics.
Shotover says, “The captain is in his bunk, drinking bottled ditch-water; and the crew is gambling in the forecastle. [The ship] will strike and sink and split. Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favor of England because you were born in it?”
So detached are these characters from the real world, however, that they do not see the seeds of their own destruction.
As the bombs begin to fall, Hesione looks up in wonder, smiles and says, “I heard a splendid drumming in the sky.”