Shaw’s unfailingly barbed plays are complicated puzzles, abstruse to the uninitiated, overwhelming to the dedicated. And yet, when staged well, as is A Noise Within’s fine new production of “Heartbreak House,” Shaw’s works present a rich banquet from which theatergoers can sample as they like. No one would call this sprawling comic drama neat — it shifts tone nearly as rapidly as subject matter — but “Heartbreak House” offers plenty of food for thought, much of it savored by this hard-working repertory company.
Ostensibly a drawing-room comedy, “Heartbreak House” is actually quite hard to categorize. Everything from society’s foundations to paternal angst to the nature of love is examined in Shaw’s wide-ranging play. Instead of trying to pigeonhole the work, smart theatergoers will simply enjoy the ride.
And that’s where A Noise Within earns its kudos. Too often, companies attempt to circle Shaw’s square, badly distorting the playwright’s views in the process — that is, when they know what he’s saying in the first place. Under the generally sensitive direction of husband and wife co-helmers Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott, Shaw is allowed to make his points almost unimpeded. It’s an approach that works.
Set in the large country house of Captain Shotover (Mitchell Edmonds), the play occurs during a single evening in 1916. The particulars sound mundane. Ellie Dunn (Ann Marie Lee) comes to visit her friend Hesione Hushabye (Deborah Strang), one of Captain Shotover’s daughters. Later, Hesione’s long-lost sister, Ariadne Utterword (Anna C. Miller), makes a surprise appearance.
Mazzini Dunn (William Mesnik), Ellie’s idealistic father, and Boss Mangan (Apollo Dukakis), a seemingly powerful tycoon, round out the visitors.
Shaw brings these disparate folk together to serve as sounding boards for his typically compelling ideas. That the Elliotts and their solid cast make Shaw’s musings engaging and even funny is a testament to their inherent sympathy for his unique art.
Particularly impressive among the thesps are Edmonds, Mesnik, and Dukakis, all playing classic Shavian types. Edmonds lends Shotover, the play’s best-known character, a lovable gruffness; Mesnik brings beguiling warmth to Dunn; and Dukakis affords Mangan a winning gentle befuddlement.
Leonard Harman’s set design follows Shaw’s detailed descriptions faithfully, and Anna Wyckoff’s costumes are appropriately elegant. Ken Booth’s lighting also works well. But it’s Shaw’s words that are the great reward here, and those who see this production will surely leave the theater thinking, for a change.