Hartford Stage, Hartford: At the heart of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House is the simple question of whether or not Ellie Dunn, a beautiful young woman, will marry for love or money. However, Shaw’s eloquently written play is a lot more complex than it first seems. The answer to the marriage question is anything but simple. As Ellie thinks things through, she moves from a romantic to a realist, from naïve to shrewd. She is influenced by the inhabitants and guests of Captain Shotover’s house, a house that is shaped like a ship and sailing into troubled and turbulent waters.
The many characters in this play are a mix of liberals and conservatives, old money, new money, and the practically impoverished. All types of people from servants to a business tycoon come together just before World War I breaks out. Shaw provides so much background in his preface to this play that it becomes immediately obvious that director Darko Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage, has kept the integrity of the playwright intact — for the most part. The one exception is the characterization of Boss Mangan, which at first is as delightful as it is shocking, but eventually upstages all the wonderful characters. I won’t spoil the moment that the director cleverly created, but it’s not the first time that something has upstaged the central characters in a Hartford Stage production. Remember “Rear Window” when the set upstaged the entire production. Now, Boss Mangan not only becomes quite the distraction in this production, but a controversial centerpiece.
Paying homage to Chekhov, Shaw referred to this play as “Heartbreak House: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.” We see these themes in characters like Hesione, who is made up like one of the European actresses. Charlotte Parry plays the eccentric role well and adds a mysterious undertone to the thoroughly liberal, amoral woman of the world. So too Stephen Barker Turner plays the lying and flirtatious Hector, whom Ellie innocently falls in love with not knowing he is already married to her good friend Hesione. Dani De Waal plays Ellie Dunn with equal amounts of charm and grace. Her only steadfast and most trusted confidant is the aged Captain himself, played with a common sense heavily laced with humor by Miles Anderson.
Tessa Auberjonois as Lady Utterword is quite exquisite as the woman of class. Mary VanArsdel plays the nurse; Keith Reddin plays Ellie’s good father, but bad businessman. Boss Mangan, as played by Andrew Long, is far too convincing a conniving businessman and Grant Goodman as Randall Utterword adds the perfect touch of confusion to the motley crew.
Colin McGurk’s incredible set looks like a ship with the trappings of an English country house. The design beautifully represents Shaw’s seafaring metaphor of a house that functions like a ship with no one resident knowing where they are headed and no one at the helm directing the inhabitants towards safety. Jane Shaw’s sound design plays into the final scenes especially dramatically and Ilona Somogyi’s costumes are quite gorgeous.
This is a fine production of a great play by a great playwright. It runs through June 11. Box office: 860-527-5151.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org