Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Heartbreak House
Hartford Stage
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's reviews of Kunstler and Thoroughly Modern Millie

Dani De Waal
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Heartbreak House, a political and personal play, is, above all, driven by George Bernard Shaw's rich and sometimes complicated characters. Hartford Stage presents this classic work through June 11th as Darko Tresnjak, directing, mixes creative and clever touches within an insightful production.

Shaw, also a novelist, critic, essayist, Socialist and, one assumes, an outspoken intellectual, wrote the play in 1913 just before the first World War. The action occurs in a very large space (more than a room) which designer Colin McGurk has fashioned into what appears to be a ship. It is 1914 in Sussex, England, and blonde, ingenue-like Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) arrives at the house, having been invited by Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Parry). Her father is 88-year-old Captain Shooter (Miles Anderson), a man still inventing who hopes to devise something that will do away with dynamite. It seems that he is able to sell only things which destroy. Hessy's sister, Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), returns from having been abroad for many years but, at first, Hessy does not even recognize her. The Captain does not seem overly pleased with either daughter. Ellie is attracted to a man but he turns out to be Hector Hushabye (Stephen Barker Turner), Hessy's husband. Hector lies, often, to women—and is more than a bit of a flirt. So, Ellie, who has neither money nor prospects, elects to marry someone named Boss Mangan (Andrew Long), a seemingly wealthy, boisterous industrialist. She thinks he will provide stability.

This nearly three-hour play includes major splashes of comedy and significant storytelling. Yes, at times, it does feel talky. It would be unfair to reveal Boss Mangan's physically side-splitting look; suffice to say he is (for all Americans) recognizable, and Tresnjak and company provide bursts of levity. Meanwhile, Ellie discovers that Mangan is not rich but, instead, ineffectively pinches pennies. Disillusioned but still hopeful, she announces, near the end of the show, that her choice for marriage is none other than Captain Shotover, six decades or so her elder.

Shotover is eclectic but perceptive and he tries to preside over the place. He thinks a perfect and perhaps calming situation might be achieved through what is called "the seventh degree of concentration." He can become drunk but he is thoughtful. Miles Anderson's portrayal of the character is fittingly frantic yet caring. Lady Utterword, also called Addy, comes and goes during the course of the play while Hessy, in the end, is not quite as pleased hosting everyone as it might have seemed. Keith Reddin plays Mazzini Dunn, who is Ellie's father. He is honest but a poor businessman. Thus, a good person and an idealist, he has little to show. Dani De Waal embodies Ellie as a yearning, soulful, searching young woman. The actress (who was excellent in the touring version of Once, shines beautifully throughout Heartbreak House. Andrew Long's Mangan is a total hoot.

The individual who best survives heartbreak is Ellie. She looks around at the "world" Shaw creates in this play and makes a clear-eyed choice: the old captain. Addy, coming back home after twenty-some years away, is not received with affection. Hessy is far from enamored with her station in life. Captain Shotover is a visionary even if, at times, he seems mad. In all, the playwright drives the play through his characters. Shaw was interested in utopia and, by implication, in possibility and hope. Heartbreak House, with its surprises, moves in unanticipated directions. When the man who composed it was once asked about its meaning, he replied, "How should I know! I am only the author."

Well, that can hardly be the case since George Bernard Shaw writes with dimension and depth. Tresnjak, recognizing contemporary relevance of this selection, is wise to conclude the current season with this production. This rendition includes precise period-appropriate costuming by Ilona Somogyi, and Jason Allen's wig design is most appreciated.

Heartbreak House continues at Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut, through June 11th, 2017. For tickets, call (860) 527-5151 or visit

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