BWW Reviews: Denver Center's HEARTBREAK HOUSE - Enchanting Performances
George Bernard Shaw's classic HEARTBREAK HOUSE plays at the Denver Center now through April 29th. Ellie Dunn, a poor but proper young lady, arrives for the weekend at the country house of Hesione Hushabye. Upon arrival she quickly discovers that no traditions or conventions exist there (thanks to a brazen nurse-maid), and the house is in disarray. Hesione's father, Captain Shotover, is an older, quirky fellow who creates destructive inventions. He doesn't seem to recognize his eldest daughter, Ariadne, who is returning home after 20 years abroad. Hesione herself has an unconventional marriage – her husband, Hector, poses as a dashing hero to woo the ladies. One of Shaw's last plays, HEARTBREAK HOUSE introduces us to charming, capable, intelligent people who are unaware of the looming peril ahead.
First off, I have to say that this show is so witty, so odd, so... Shaw! Its quirky characters remind me of the various characters in the wonderful movie Cold Comfort Farm. To put it in a nutshell, "This is a crazy house!" You gotta love the cutting wit of British humor (what sense is there for having servants with no manners?!) and it is apparent from the first lines that spill out of the sarcastic nurse’s mouth. This show has twists and turns that will make your head spin and there are several OMG! moments that made my particular audience gasp out loud. As various characters pop up from the stage gallows, you are left wondering “who is it this time?!” Shaw’s expert grasp of language shines in this script, with captivating monologues and sharp asides. You all know I love a good girl fight. This one has the women showing each other up in creative ways and was spectacular fun to watch. The irony of the “burglar who wouldn’t flee without a promise of prosecution” is hilarious and clever. This show also poses important questions and deals with an awakening of social conscience (“a soul is a very expensive thing to keep”), and is ultimately an exploration of various forms of heartbreak. In Act III we see a lot of these questions posed and the suspense starts to build as the cast enters WWII with an upended optimism ("The important thing is not to have the last word, but to have your own way.")
Under the direction of Bruce K. Sevy, the blocking and performances are outstanding. Sarah Nealis, in her Denver Center debut as Ellie Dunn, demonstrates incredible range and is just superb. As the lead female role, she takes on a lot and carries it all with professionalism and skill. Kathleen M. Brady as the brash and brazen Nurse Guinness has a blast with her role and brings the funny with every perfectly-timed witty line she utters. Philip Pleasants as Captain Shotover is the true gem of this production. His portrayal of the senile Captain is sidesplitting; the audience adored him and this is one of his best performances, hands down. Kathleen McCall as Lady Utterword may be a little wobbly in her accent, but there is a mischievous sparkle in her eye that draws you in like a beacon. From her first lines to her last monologue, her performance is absolutely enchanting! Lise Bruneau, in her Denver Center debut as Hesione Hushabye, is a bit odd and I had a hard time figuring her out at first, but she grew on me and it ended up being a delightful performance. RAndy Moore offers a tender and touching performance as Mazzini Dunn – a joy to watch. J. Paul Boehmer as womanizer Hector Hushabye is delightful in his woman wooing strategies – some work, others don’t, but all of them are entertaining and even surprising. Robert Sicular as Boss Mangan offers a near over the top performance that is completely appropriate for the character and had the audience roaring with laughter. Brad Bellamy as William “Billy” Dunn has just a brief time onstage, but his role is hysterical. He definitely leaves an impression long after he’s left the stage.
Scenic designer Vicki Smith outdid herself with this one. The set has a marvelous maritime feel that surrounds the primary setting of a house in the South of England in 1916. At times I felt like I was on a ship – from the gorgeous masthead that stood prominently onstage to the vintage maps hanging on every corner. Another aspect that I found interesting and engaging was how people and set pieces kept popping up from underneath the stage and the intricate details of the set pieces. Lighting design by Don Darnutzer and sound effects by Jason Ducat were subtle and appropriate, supporting the tone and action without overwhelming them. Costumes, by designer Bill Black, served up rich color schemes and the various wigs anchored us in a specific time and place.
While it may be a little long, the show – with its intricate sets, gorgeous costumes, outstanding performances, and wonderfully witty writing – is worth the time investment. And with names like Hushabye, Utterword, and Shotover, you know you’re in for a few fun surprises along the way! HEARTBREAK HOUSE is enchanting audiences through April 29th at the Space Theatre of the Denver Center. For tickets or information, contact the Denver Center box office at 303-893-4100 or online at www.denvercenter.org.
Photo credit: Vicki Kerr
Sarah Nealis and Philip Pleasants