Shavian bombshells, falling from the night sky

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(c) Michael Brosilow

John Reeger plays Capt. Shotover and Atra Asdou is Ellie in "Heartbreak House." 

Review: “Heartbreak House,” by G.B. Shaw
Writers’ Theatre, Chicago

German planes rumble in the night sky over Sussex, England, and as their bombs detonate ever closer to the residence of Capt. Shotover, one of his several guests takes decisive action. He runs from room to room turning on all the lights to make a brighter, clearer target for the airborne raiders.

Is this fellow mad? Does he wish to die? The answer to the first question is, probably not; and to the second, hard to say. As much as anything he just wants to heighten the excitement.

Most of the characters assembled here, starting with the retired sea captain turned inventor, are a bit wacky. They are at least an unconventional lot, free-spirited, anti-authoritarian observers on the foibles of conventionality. They constitute the unharmonious, bitingly funny choristers of Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” an ensemble brought to sparkling life in this beat-perfect production at Writers’ Theatre.

If polemical theater is a redundancy in the Shaw lexicon, “Heartbreak House” shares with the playwright’s “Saint Joan” a brilliance of language and sharpness of point that renders harangue irresistible. Shaw’s every mordant flourish hits the mark in this enterprise deftly directed by William Brown with a cast that has made the skins of these precisely drawn characters their own.

Dotty old Capt. Shotover’s house seems to foster odd behavior, or at least attract the amiably eccentric. Shotover, the distractedly imperturbable John Reeger, shares the place with his daughter Hersione and her husband Hector, a bohemian couple whose beauty endures though their mutual spark has expired.

They are joined on this fateful night by assorted visitors who are either invited or just pop in – Shotover’s long-absent daughter Ariadne (now risen in society to the rank of Lady), her lover (who also happens to be her husband’s brother), the beautiful young Ellie Dunn and her father and, not least, Shaw’s straw man — Boss Mangan, a grasping capitalist who lusts after pretty Ellie.

With smiling cynicism, “Heartbreak House” explains why the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The problem, as Shaw sees it, is that we’re corrupt, perverse, duplicitous, calculating creatures by nature. And the very worst in us is expressed by the ambitions of capitalism, the profit-producing machinations of which we see distilled in a clever scheme devised by a burglar.

Shaw seems to like the bohemians here, an attraction one can only share in the lovely, witty person of Karen Janes Woditsch as Hersione and Martin Yurek as her alluringly handsome, devoutly melodramatic husband. But even more, the playwright adores Ellie, portrayed by Atra Asdou as an almost waif-like girl who seems all deference and vulnerability until a turn in circumstances reveals her soul of steel.

Ellie is the embodiment of who we really are, or rather what we must become if we are to survive in this dog-eat-dog existence. Nice guys don’t just finish last in Shaw’s world; they get eaten. And the devouring maw is capitalism, the insatiable “bloated entrepreneur,” as one house guest derisively labels Boss Mangan, given duly imposing form by John Lister.

In the end, Shaw leaves one character partially veiled. We know everyone’s story, every Achilles’ heel, but one: Hersione’s socially ascended sister Ariadne, framed memorably by Tiffany Scott in chiaroscuro tints of subsurface anger and anxiety, arrogance and unconfessed secrets. Defiant words notwithstanding, Scott tells us in visage and posture what her wealth and superior place have not conjured: contentment.

Designer Keith Pitts’ efficient but evocative set, complete with gazebo and leafy trees and stony pathway, caps an all-around splendid production that should be at the top of your Don’t Miss list.

Through June 26. www.writerstheatre.org (847) 242-6000.