A first-class production of "Heartbreak House," George Bernard Shaw's biting, satirical commentary on the frivolous pursuits of the cultured, leisured classes of Great Britain and Europe before World War I, is being staged by Theatre Hopkins through Dec. 9.
Clearly, the presentation of great classics, under the erudite direction of Suzanne Pratt, is what this tastefully artistic company does so well.
At the time of Shaw's masterpiece, England was drifting through an economic, political and moral vacuum. Like Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," the play presents the deterioration of society through a group of people gathered in a country house.
We see a collection of superficial, futile humans meeting in old Capt. Shotover's dwelling -- built like a ship and suggestive of England itself -- continually talking about culture and politics, among ther things. They flirt, manipulate each other for power or security, bare their shallow souls and ignore the warning of the serious rumblings in the world around them.
The play symbolizes several aspects of English life. The names, too, are significant. Lady Ariadne Utterword, Capt. Shotover's daughter, represents the haughty British Empire. Her sister, Hesione Hushabye, stands for home and hearth. Hesione's philandering husband, Hector, typifies the lazy, privileged wastrel.
Corrupt, powerful business interests are found in the person of Boss Mangan. Mazzini Dunn is symbolic of the idealistic but ineffectual liberal. His daughter, Ellie, the very modern girl, considers a marriage for money to Mangan but finds a kindred soul in the wise old captain. Thus young England and old England unite as they must to survive.
In the play, Shaw himself is obviously speaking through the 88-year-old captain. Cantankerous, rebellious, sarcastically philosophic, he is a tough old bird, severely critical of the upper classes' avoidance of political responsibility. He is generally regarded as "mad" by all.
In his young sailing days, he says, he sold his soul to the devil and married his second wife, a black witch in Zanzibar. These references are indicative of England's colonial exploitation and pitiless quest for imperial power.
(We never find out what happened to the first wife. Was she the mother of Shotover's two daughters? That remains a mystery).
Romantic intrigue abounds. Hector finds himself drawn to the too proper Lady Utterword. Ellie is in love with Hector. Boss Mangan, engaged to Ellie, loses his black heart to the frivolous, flirtatious Hesione. Randall Utterword (Ariadne's brother-in-law) is hopelessly in love with Ariadne.
The breaking of many hearts stands as an omen still relevant today; without a solidly supported society civilization must collapse.
The cutting of Shaw's text by director Pratt to allow for shorter running time is questionable as Shaw himself felt the omission of a single syllable would lessen the effect.
But this production is quite professional. The pace is slickbreezy and rhythmic. The acting ensemble achieves the core of the richly developed Shavian characters.
The captain, one of the greatest characters created by Shaw, is soundly portrayed by J.R. Lyston. Lyston's Shotover is earthy intellectualism, boisterous, insulting (fired by rum and meaningful ideals), yet kindly and rather loveable.
Cherie Weinert performs her finest role to date as the wisely tolerant Hesione. Patricia Coleman is a stunning, supercilious Lady Utterword playing the game of social graces. Arthur Laupus is excellent as Hector, the husband who plays the fool out of a sense of sheer worthlessness.
Donald Hart is charming and moving as the well-meaning Mazzini. Laura Gifford, as the progressive Ellie Dunn, convinces but needs to rethink her character's motivations and create a more in-depth understanding of the role.
Stan Weiman beautifully underplays the villainous, yet pathetic, Boss Mangan. Graham Yearley is delightfully amusing as Ariadne's spoiled, sulky brother-in-law, and Beth Vaughan (she alternates with Nona Porter) thoroughly entertains as the cheerful Nurse Guiness.
Winifred Walsh's theater column appears every Thursday in the Accent Plus section of The Evening Sun.