Heartbreak House--Still Relevant Today

George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House (1919), directed by Robert Estes for the 5th season of Actor's Ensemble of Berkeley, transcends its time period.

Shaw's play is a notable work on many levels, but perhaps one of its most pronounced literary elements is in its profuse embodiment of modernism.  It is seen in the characters, the dialogue, the psychology of the characters and through the events that play out.  Many of the underlying statements in this play about politics, money, war and people's facades still resonate today.

The story follows a house party in the English countryside hosted by Hesione Hushabye (Michele Delattre) who lives with her father, an old salty sea captain, named Shotover (Jeff Trescott).  Hushabye's protege, Ellie Dunn (Taylor Diffenderfer), comes with news that she is to be married to Boss Mangan (Keith Jefferds), a wealthy man who financially ruined her father, and Hesione tries to convince her to marry for love instead.  After pushing Hesione learns that indeed Ellie is in love--from afar--with a man who turns out to be Hesione's husband Hector (Stanley Spenger).  In a marriage that is clearly full of affection, but whose steam has run out, Hesione turns her affections toward Ellie's father Mazzini Dunn (Matthew Surrence), while Hector, a teller of tall tales, becomes infatuated with Hesione's visiting sister, Ariadne Utterword (Amaka Izuchi). Ariadne's brother in law Randall (Brian McManus) pops in, in love with Ariadne, of course and the plot turns into a tempestuous cat-and-mouse game between the sexes. As the patriarch, Captain Shotover watches amusingly over the entire circus, while forcing his fervent opinions down people's throats.

Shaw's characters represent various aspects of the political and social climate.  Mangan is the villain, the money hungry capitalist while the quirky Shotover is the opposite, the anti-capitalist who reflects Shaw's own socialist views.  Meanwhile Hesione, who is repulsed by Mangan, is the saucy feminist ahead of her time.  And Ellie is the naive, romantic who has the most interesting character arc as she becomes a hard-edged cynic.  Joseph O'Loughlin is a burglar who not only convinces his captors to release him but persuades them to take up a collection so he can start out again on the right track.  Lynn Sotos portrays Nurse Guiness, the housekeeper who has an interesting connection with the burglar. 

With the aid of a well balanced ensemble cast, Director Robert Estes has rendered admirably Shaw's lighthearted pandemonium and his apocalyptic vision of a new English class consciousness.  The imprint of Anton Chekhov's style is apparent in Shaw's reliance on dialogue to express characterization in the atmosphere of post-war England.  The whole play takes place in the course of one evening and runs three and a half hours.

Heartbreak House continues at the Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Avenue (at Berryman) in Berkeley through February 19, 2011, Fridays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sunday, February 13 at 2 p.m.; and Thursday, February 17 at 8 p.m. For reservations, call 510-649-5999 or go online at www.aeofberkeley.org.

Coming up next at the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley will be the West Coast Premiere of Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play, April 22-May 21.