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Heartbreak House

After 14 productions of George Bernard Shaw in its 32 seasons, one might wonder why Germinal Stage Denver waited until this year to produce Heartbreak House, Shaw's favorite play and arguably his best. By the end of the evening, however, there can be no doubt that artistic director Ed Baierlein's timing couldn't be better.

As Shaw wrote in his preface to the work, Heartbreak House is not merely the name of the play, or its setting for that matter—it is "cultured, leisured Europe" before World War I. Yet, as is always the case with great art, its import is timeless, and thus provides telling commentary on our own imperial machinations.

Set in the hill country of north Sussex, on the grounds of a house built by a former seafaring captain to resemble a ship, the story captures a day in the life of a group of English gentry.

Photo of Kristina Denise Pitt as Ellie and Ed Baierlein as Shotover
Kristina Denise Pitt as Ellie
and Ed Baierlein as Shotover
Ellie, an attractive young woman who is betrothed to Mangan, a stodgy, middle-aged industrialist, is invited to visit by the captain's daughter, Hesione, who has the intention of getting her friend to break off the relationship. Meanwhile, Hesione's long-lost sister Ariadne returns home after an absence of twenty-three years and immediate attracts the romantic attentions of her sister's randy husband, Hector, who, it is discovered, has been leading on Ellie for years, under an assumed name.

At the periphery of this menagerie are Ellie's father, Mazzini, who has been ruined by Mangan, Ariadne's brother-in-law Randall, who pines for her, and Guinness, the tippling maid. Only the retired captain, it seems, under the guise of dementia, can make any sense of all this.

White-bearded with a drooping eye, and toting a cane as much for authoritative effect as structural support, Ed Baierlein, as Captain Shotover, is the perfect stand-in for the venerable playwright and Nobel laureate, dispensing wisdom with the ease of a rum-lubricated mariner who has found what he calls, "the seventh degree of concentration."

Creating a splash in a white lace period dress, the first of many dazzling costumes by Sallie Diamond, Kristina Denise Pitt, as Ellie, is every bit the innocent, nubile offering, until, in an inspired turn of the tables, she exhibits her hidden seasoning, first as a gold digger, and later as the wildcard seeker with a heart of gold.

Suzanna Wellens is fetching as the outspoken and free-spirited Hesione, who has fallen not far from the same tree as that of her combative sister, Ariadne, a playful Lisa Mumpton. It's no surprise that they both are attracted to the dashing Hector, a debonair, mustachioed figure cut by Stephen Kramer. Michael A. Parker, Chuck Wigginton, Jacob T. Morehead, and Laura Booze round out the talented ensemble.

As in Chekhov and Tolstoy, the idle rich come off very badly, squandering their lives and resources in pursuit of social position and material gain, but with Shaw, more than perhaps any other playwright excepting "Shake-speare," the discussion flows so naturally and even-handedly that we are left to wonder how he avoided sounding preachy or didactic. Therein lies his genius.

While Shaw shares his political and social concerns with us literally in his preface—including that "Swindlers were emboldened to take offices, label themselves Anti-Enemy Leagues, and simply pocket the money that was heaped on them"; that "soldiers were acquitted, even on fully proved indictments for willful murder"; and that "the war maniacs made a frantic rush to abolish all constitutional guarantees of liberty and well-being"—in the play itself he leisurely establishes the personal motivations of his characters in the first act, thus freeing his biting social commentary, wrapped within well-turned metaphors, to flow without pretense from their mouths in the second and third acts.

Given the devastation of the wars that followed Shaw's prescient warnings, it is well worth our while to take his advice seriously—and it goes down so easily in this clever black comedy!

Germinal Stage Denver's production of Heartbreak House runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 7 pm, through October 9th. through October 9th. Tickets range from $14.75 to $18.75. Their box office number is 303-455-7108.

Bob Bows

 

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