BWW Reviews: Main Street Theater's HEARTBREAK HOUSE is Thought Provoking Social Commentary
George Bernard Shaw, perhaps best known for his play PYGMALION (which is the basis of the musical MY FAIR LADY), was profoundly affected by World War I. His first full-length piece following the war was the rarely produced HEARTBREAK HOUSE, which exposes the devastating aspects of the idle and self-indulgent British upper echelon. Moving into summer, a time of year usually ear-marked by sugary sweet theatrical confections, Main Street Theater is giving Houston audiences heavy social commentary, featuring George Bernard Shaw's celebrated wit, with their well-executed production of HEARTBREAK HOUSE.
Because of its complexities, HEARTBREAK HOUSE is not often produced. However, when a company like Main Street Theater picks up the rich piece, which unapologetically exposes the shortcomings of our own injudicious humanity almost 100 years after its first publication, audiences can rest assured that the comic drama is in more than proficient hands. The play, over three acts, introduces audiences to 10 members of British society. Hesione Hushabye has invited a cadre of family, friends, and acquaintances to a dinner party at her father's house. Set on the eve of World War I and as Britain edges closer and closer to total destruction, we see that none of these characters are what they initially represent themselves to be.
Direction by Rebecca Greene Udden ensures that George Bernard Shaw's menagerie of affluent, self-absorbed characters interests the audience. At times the pacing seems to lull in the first and second acts, but that is because the play itself is wordy and thoroughly explores each of its major themes. As the play progresses, the audience won't find themselves loving or even really liking most of the characters on stage; yet, we can't stop watching them because of how ridiculously out of touch with reality they are. Finally, the third act exposes the absurdity of their distance from humanity and under Rebecca Greene Udden's direction serves as a sublimely rewarding conclusion to the production.
Balancing the social commentary in the play with adroit skill and precision, Charles Krohn's Captain Shotover is the absolutely most likeable character in the play. He comes across as doddering, confused, and even senile because he is the most genuine and honest member of the upper class that the audience gets. He wears no façade, delivering elegant lines of wisdom throughout the production. Charles Krohn's Captain Shotover seems out of touch in the piece because he is grounded by logic and understanding of the precipice that the world was teetering on in 1914. While the younger members of his family and their acquaintances are all ruined by idleness, indifference, and false values, Charles Krohn's sagacious Captain Shotover is tinged with heartbreak about the impending apocalypse for the British Empire, democracy, and human decency.
As is expected in a play by George Bernard Shaw, commentary concerning the place of women in polite society is fascinating. Joanna Hubbard's sweetly innocent Ellie Dunn starts out as a largely sympathetic character. When we first meet her, she has been in the study at Shotover's country home for quite some time, and no one has received her. In fact, her bags, we find out, are still sitting on the front steps of the home. Yet, as she revels her own layers, we begin to see how shrewdly calculating she is. He innocuous charm is replaced by materialism. Likewise, sisters Lady Ariadne Utterwood, played by Elizabeth Marshall Black, and Hesione Hushabye, played by Celeste Roberts, are portraits of women who define themselves by the wealth and power of their husbands. Neither relates well with the other or with other people for that matter because they are so concerned with their outward appearances that it almost appears that neither has anything under the persona they have invented for themselves.
The gentlemen in the play all reinvent themselves to meet the constantly shifting expectations placed upon them by the women in the production. Capitalism, consumerism, and materialism all decry that the wealthiest is the fittest suitor, even if one is already married. Jeffrey S. Lane's Mazzini Dunn is the portrait of goodness. He is mild-mannered and consummately polite; however, he appears to have no acumen for business or finances, making him less than desirable in the eyes of society. Joe Kirkendall's Hector Hushabye has money and the consummate Matinee Idol lure of the debonair Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, especially in his Act II and III costume. Jim Salner's Boss Mangan, despite his age, seems to be a quality prospect because of his skill in managing other people's money and business, which has allowed him to create a respected business empire of his own. Each of these men is a pawn in the games played by the women, and they appear to enjoy being tokens and trinkets in the frivolous and casual sport of romance.
The remainder of the cast offers laughs and some lighthearted edges to the play. Sheryl Croix's Nurse Guinness is a batty housemaid with keen skills of observation. Joel Sandel's Randall Utterwood is a lovesick and lovelorn man that Lady Ariadne Utterwood plays with as if he is a valueless bauble. Mark Robert's Billy Dunn is a thief used as comic relief.
Ryan McGettigan's Set Design brings Imperial England to life on the stage, blazoning the wooden floor with the Union Jack. Moreover, the interior of Shotover's home is reminiscent of the Captain's Quarters section of a boat, as the windows are latticed and model ships and weathered wood decorate the set.
Margaret Crowley's Costume Design expertly recreates the fashions of the era. Every detail and stitch is attended to, especially in the garments worn by the women. The colors and fabrics chosen masterfully highlight the tastes of the times.
With strong direction, solid acting, and meticulous technical elements, Main Street Theater's production of HEARTBREAK HOUSE is an entertaining and thought provoking exploration of humanity's faults. For George Bernard Shaw, these characters danced while fast asleep on the edge of danger. As the bombs begin to drop over Europe in 1914, this group enjoys the giddiness of their lives. Yet, in 2014, one has to wonder if we are all that different and what dangers we turn blind eyes to.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with two intermissions.
HEARTBREAK HOUSE, produced by Main Street Theater, runs at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard, Houston, 77005 now through June 1, 2014. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.mainstreettheater.com or call (713) 524-6706.
All photos by RicOrnelProductions.com. Courtesy of Main Street Theater.
Charles Krohn as Captain Shotover.