Theater Review: A Heartening “Heartbreak House”

In a living society every day is a day of judgment; and its recognition as such is not the end of all things but the beginning of a real civilization. – George Bernard Shaw, “The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles,” preface, 1936.

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Presented by The Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through August 30.

Captain Stotover (George Morfogen) regales Ellie Dunn (Pamela Bob) in The Peterborough Players production of Heartbreak House

Captain Shotover (George Morfogen) talks with Ellie Dunn (Pamela Bob) in The Peterborough Players production of Heartbreak House.

Reviewed by Bill Marx

George Bernard Shaw exuberantly chronicles the end of a world in “Heartbreak House,” the snuffing out of a British empire gone complacent and sleepy, torpidly lumbering toward the horrors of World War I. Is the threatened destruction of the play’s exotically charming upper crust creatures by bombs dropped from a Zeppelin to be welcomed or feared? In this masterpiece Shaw brilliantly plays with the yen for extinction, makes the death wish ribald.

Is this a judgment day that promises the beginnings of “a real civilization” or is it an apocalypse that a society that’s incapable of renewal longs for? Some critics believe this to be Shaw’s most nihilistic play, his cry of despair at the slaughter of World War I. In truth, it is one of his most artfully paradoxical, a dadesque teeter-totter that dramatizes the joys of starting up and winding down. The passionate contradiction between vitality and dissolution generates the play’s mysterious power, an enigmatic allure caught in this superb ensemble production staged by The Peterborough Players.

The metaphor of a floundering ship of state takes concrete shape in Shaw’s fantasia, which is set in a country home structured like a boat. The house hosts a menagerie of loopy lovers, false prophets, aging visionaries, mangy capitalists, aging Romeos, and ineffectual idealists. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the solipsistic efforts of Hesione Hushabye, the daughter of an ex-sea captain and inventor Shotover, to break up the proposed marriage between the young Ellie Dunn and the middle-aged industrialist, Mangan. The other legit attendee at Hesione’s house party is Ellie’s well-meaning but ineffectual father, Mazzini.

George Bernard Shaw: Is the world going to be reborn? Or just junked?

George Bernard Shaw: Is the world going to be reborn? Or just junked?

Uninvited guests at the gathering include Shotover’s other daughter, Lady Utterwood, a resolute follower of conventional hypocrisy, her vapid follower, Randall, and a burglar who steals some of her jewels. Shaw masterfully shuffles his articulate and charismatic figures around the poop deck as they prey on one another, the Bloomsbury-influenced worshipers of art and sex turning out to be as purposeless and crass as the captains of industry they disdain.

At the center of the play is Ellie’s heartbreak once she learns that the romantic hero she loves proves to be Hesione’s husband, Hector. The shattering of the illusions of youth (“When your heart is broken, your bridges are burned; nothing matters anymore. It is the end of happiness and the beginning of peace.”) are painful but liberating. Creation begins with destruction. Ellie forms a strange spiritual bond with the eccentric Shotover, an aged misanthrope who wishes to blow mankind to smithereens but remembers, with the help of rum, the value of doing over dreaming.

Unlike the marriage of idealistic youth and amoral power at the end of 1905’s “Major Barbara,” which Shaw sees as necessary to shape reality to a politically desirable (Fabian) end, this generations gap couple comes off as detached from the real world, with Shaw spinning a fantasy riff on Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” (Most critics see variations on “King Lear” in this script, but Shaw is rewiring Ibsen as well)

Sleep occurs often in his play. Ellie nods off at the beginning while reading “Othello”; later she hypnotizes Mangan. Society is trapped in a comic nightmare of complacency, mired in trivial pleasures, feckless relationships, and the delights of art-for-art’s-sake. The Peterborough Players production brings enormous vitality to Shaw’s vision of people sleepwalking with impish pizazz though their half-lives.

Dee Nelson beautifully conveys Hesione’s histrionic approach to life; Shaw’s siren is always acting up a storm in a teacup, but with a sincerity tinctured with a self-conscious melancholy. George Morfogen supplies one of the best Shotovers I have ever seen. Morfogen doesn’t overdo the grumbling geezer routine: there’s not a single Popeye-the-Sailor note struck. Instead, he uses a matter-of-fact deadpan that only makes his curmudgeonly surreal one-liners funnier. As Ellie, Pamela Bob brings to the role the requisite vivacity in search of a meaningful direction – it is not her fault that society has devolved to the point that significant action has become a near-impossibility.

Some of the Heartbreak House cast members: In photo #2, the actors are (left to right): - James Whitmore Jr., Jack Koenig - Pamela Bob, George Morfogen, Dee Nelson

Some of the Heartbreak House cast members (left to right): - James Whitmore Jr., Jack Koenig - Pamela Bob, George Morfogen, Dee Nelson

Other members of The Peterborough Players impressive ensemble also modulate their performances to a T, from Jack Koenig’s nimble would-be-swashbuckler Hector and Lisa Bosnar’s archly flirty Lady Utterwood to the wonderful Mangan of James Whitmore Jr. I have never seen the capitalist scapegoat sweat so much flustered humanity. Director Gus Kaikkonen brings snappy brio to the pacing – the play moves along at refreshingly sharp clip, only bogging down, as usual, during the burglar episode.

My reservation with the fine Peterborough Players production is predictable, given that the company delivers Shaw’s warped drawing room antics with so such pungent and punchy energy. The final act of “Heartbreak House” sails into darker, more surreal territory – it is a dream of death capping a delusion of life. The characters sit outside of the Shotover home and listen to their possible demise (the German Zepplins) flying overhead dropping bombs. Hector prays for oblivion; others see destruction as a new thrill, a spectator sport, a lethal form of performance art.

At this point the comic approach must give way to something more macabre and terrifying, but the production stumbles, reworking the jokey cadences that serve the performers so well in the earlier acts. The ending must be frightening and portentous as well as strangely amusing. Shaw doesn’t tell us whether the world of “Heartbreak House” is going to be reborn or junked – only that it must go up in flames.

(Note: Reader be warned – I am a long-time friend of Dee Nelson. But this was too good of a Shaw production not to write about.)


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