Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 30, 2017

Heartbreak House


Hartford Stage, Hartford
through June 11, 2017
by Shera Cohen

Before the play started, I should have read the program book. The list of characters, actors, and period are especially important. “Sussex, England, 1914.” Not that “Heartbreak House” by GB Shaw is a mystery, but that ominous date 1914 –the start of WWI – would have enlightened my experience of the story.

Photo by T. Charles  Erickson
This is one of those plays when lots of people simply drop by another person’s home. Characters just show up, and in many cases, wear their personalities with broad strokes. Yes, there are mood changes and alliances, but for the most part what you see is what you get; i.e. snooty upper-class woman, doddering sea captain, blonde ingénue, buffoon-like blowhard, and suave boy toy. Most of those onstage define lives of boredom and/or bravado. Yet, at its core is money and its effects on all in the room.

Very much an ensemble cast, where each actor fits his/her role perfectly (Hartford Stage has a knack for that), some shine a little bit more than others. Miles Anderson (Captain Shotover) plays cantankerous and funny, yet astute and wise at the same time. He sits or stands center stage throughout most of the play. Wearing his sailor garb, he takes the helm, whether it be his home or his ship.

Stephen Barker Turner (Hector Hushabye – oh, those absurd names characters spew as if they weren’t funny) portrays Hesione’s husband, Ellie’s suitor, and Lady Utterwood’s fling – all impeccably. These are not separate roles. Hector just happens to be a very busy, insincere, and handsome man. He often repeats a line to the effect that his mustache brings women to their knees.

Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak takes on double duty as the play’s director. While the play is long, Tresnjak puts emphasis on the humor and fun in Act I seemingly speeding up the comings and goings of these eccentric characters. In Act II, “Heartbreak House” does get laden down with philosophy and the practicality of money. Because Shaw’s words are so flawlessly selected, and because the audience has already come to accept this motley group, we need to stick with the story until, alas, the loud sounds and light flashes of reality, of war. Just what would this group do as war surrounds them? The outlook looks dim for most, with or without money in their pockets.

Hartford Stage never skimps on their sets. The audience sees a three-level living room/ship bow of brown wood, every inch the trappings of a stately house. Atop is the balcony, shaped like a sail, quite open and airy with glorious winding staircases leading to it. The highest level depicts the upper the sail, airier still. A thank you to the genius of Scenic Designer Colin McGurk.

And some one-sentence kudos are important. Ilona Somogyi’s costume work is flawless and beautiful. Turner’s swashbuckling pantomime is hysterical, and Andrew Long’s “orange hair” is spot-on.