Irish-born George Bernard Shaw'spiercingly intelligent, witty social criticism peaked in his 1919 play Heartbreak House. Written with World War I still echoing over the continent, Shaw turned his pen to a pointed satire of the stuffiness and rigid class consciousness of the rapidly fading British Empire. But despite the World War I setting, Heartbreak House so overflows with Shaw's philosophy and genuine humanitarian concern that it feels as wickedly thought-provoking today.
The play unfolds over an afternoon and evening at the eccentrically bohemian homestead of inventor/mystic Captain Shotover and his daughters. Guests representing British society, values and lifestyles drop by—titled peer, industrial tycoon and others. Shaw bares and spanks each tarnished soul's psyche yet lovingly accepts each as an example of beautifully flawed humanity.
The play is Chekhovian in the sense that there's not a lot happening besides incredibly witty conversation—and an unmistakable dark undertone, in this case, Shaw's prophecy (or lament, maybe) about the dangers of militarism and industry.
Presented in the round, this production delivers Shaw's long play at point-blank range upon a cleverly executed, minimalist set. It's a great choice, underscoring the timelessness of Shaw's ideas, allowing them to stand out more vividly than a plusher period realization may have done.
The large cast, boldly directed by Caprice Spencer Rothe, tackles full accents at rapid-fire pacing, appropriate to Shaw's intense, wordy style. Though there's some stumbling over pithy lines, Shaw's spirit and rhythm are captured admirably.
Of special note among the fine 10-person cast are: Bob Kokol's Boss Mangan, powerful as a ruthless industrialist, poignant as hapless dupe of love, hysterical throughout; Jill Cary Martin, who creates an otherworldly siren with subtle vulnerability; and Marcia Bonnitz, who shifts gears impressively as Ariadne, a social-climber and part-time seductress.
All in all, this is an intimate, heartfelt production of a wordy and idea-dense classic. It showcases Shaw's brilliance—his rare combination of intellect and feeling.