Also see John's review of Betty Rules
A haz-mat suited team, all wearing gas masks, enters an English country house, circa 1914. They remove tarpaulins that have been covering the bodies of the residents, and as they exit the characters return to life and begin the text of Shaw's Heartbreak House at the Goodman. The prologue, which we will later see to be the first of a set of bookends, is not from Shaw, but an invention of director Kate Whoriskey's interpretation of Shaw's reflection of a society on the brink of war, performed for an audience in somewhat the same situation.
For most of the first two of three acts, a playgoer coming to Heartbreak House without the benefit of college-level study of the piece, might view it as simply a standard romantic farce in which the characters are coincidentally confined to a place together and impact upon each others' lives in unexpected ways. This "weekend in the country" is hosted by Mrs. Hesione Hushabye (Alyssa Bresnahan). Some of her guests are invited, some are not. The invited guests include the young Miss Ellie Dunn (Marin Ireland), her father (Will Zahrn), and her betrothed "Boss" Alfred Mangan (Matt DeCaro), an older businessman and associate of her father. The surprise arrivals include Hesione's sister, Ariadne (Mary Beth Fisher), now Lady Utterword and home for her first visit in 23 years; Ariadne's brother-in-law Randall (Jerry Saslow); and a burglar (Ernest Perry, Jr.). Other members of the household include her husband Hector (Don Reilly), the maid (Catherine Smitko), and her dotty 88-year-old father Captain Shotover (Jack Wetherall).
Ellie seems headed for a loveless marriage to Mangan, though she prefers a handsome young man who turns out to be Hesione's husband. Mangan prefers Hesione and plots with Ellie to see if they can engineer a re-shuffling of the couples. The sister Ariadne complicates this by dallying with Hector. Though there are plenty of laughs, the proceedings are more philosophical than farcical, offering much opportunity for Shaw to offer comments on life and English society. The characters are all searching for happiness and a logical place in Edwardian society, and none of them are exactly as they seem. Ellie believes she can bring her family greater fortune by marrying well, but it turns out that Mangan is neither wealthy nor successful in his own right. Hector, is dashingly handsome (he even dresses like a Sheik at one point, as is to emphasize his matinee idol looks) though not successful at anything. Captain Shotover has created some successful inventions following his career at sea, but the money is running out and the Shotover/Hushabye household is beginning to have supporting their country manor manner of living.
In act three, set long after dark of the late September evening in which the guests arrive, World War I intrudes on these lives as a German Zeppelin attacks their town, destroying the local vicarage. To the residents and guests of Heartbreak House, the aerial raids seem an entertaining diversion. Barely adjusted to the Edwardian era after the Victorian age, they have no idea of the change in world order that awaits those that will survive. Whoriskey's second bookend has the cast donning gas masks as the curtain falls, to underscore Mr. Dunn's observation that "life doesn't end. It goes on."
Though Shaw's characters are colorful, and as played by this cast highly entertaining, they all seem to be surrogates for the author and his philosophy. With two hours and 25 minutes of playing time, the play is dense with ideas and could be at least a bit overwhelming for someone in their first exposure to the piece. It was for me. In this production, though, particularly after the exposition of the first act had been set up, it was never dull. Director Whoriskey has a distinctive style of enormous energy and passion. Her characters are larger than life, with emotions that could fill Radio City Music Hall. Her most recent assignment at the Goodman was Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, and her staging had the sort of romantic, emotional grandiosity one might expect of a Williams drama about Italian-Americans in love. That tone, though less expected here, seems just as appropriate for the people of Heartbreak House .
Her approach to the piece is greatly supported by Walt Spangler's set design, an enormous, brightly-colored cartoon of a country house that features Rube Goldberg-like gears and pulleys to show Capt. Shotover's skill for invention and the firm establishment of the industrial age in 1914 England. The set also boasts a huge cutout train locomotive that arrives at the Manor and even a three-dimensional lightning bolt to accompany a storm.
This larger-than-life, stylized approach to the material is a perfect match to the egos of the self-absorbed characters who seem to find their lives terribly important. The cast is uniformly strong, with Bresnahan its heart as the architect of the evening's intrigue. Her Hesione, though manipulative, is charming and sensual, and always the center of attention. Matt DeCaro nearly steals the show, though, as Mangan. His character's emotions range from decorous reserve to exasperation and humiliation as he sees Hesione and Ellie try to manipulate him. His confession that he is not as rich or successful as he seems is touching, and his desperation in Act III when he threatens to strip naked in protest of all the pretensions he's witnessed has us believing he'll go through with it. I was amazed to see that Jack Weatherall (who plays the long-suffering Uncle Vic on TV's Queer As Folk) is, by his performance here and his resume, a consummate classical actor. As the 88-year-old Captain Shotover, he shows a mastery of timing and understatement to deliver Shaw's humor and takes the character from goofy old man to tired but wise and strangely happy and serene person nearing the end of his life.
The Goodman's Heartbreak House is an amazingly inventive and energetic interpretation of a classic roughly as old as Captain Shotover and I highly recommend it. It might not be a bad idea to stop at the Border's Bookstore around the corner first, though, and pick up a Cliffs Notes to peruse before the performance.
Heartbreak House runs through June 6th at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. Performances are Wednesday through Sundays (with a Tuesday evening performance on June 1). For ticket information, call 312-443-3800 or visit www.goodmantheater.org.