Heartbreak House was written as World War I was wreaking its havoc on the old European order and audiences were turning to theater as a means of escape. George Bernard Shaw was unable to generate production interest in staging the play and had to settle, in 1919, for publication. In the lengthy preface that accompanies the reader's edition, he pays homage to Chekhov's plays, particularly The Cherry Orchard, as the inspiration for what he considered his masterpiece.
Unlike Chekhov, whose stories and plays always strike me as highly contemporary (probably because Chekhov's main interest is character, not philosophizing on social and political theory), Shaw always makes me aware that I am reading a "classic" -- often a code word for stuffy. Fortunately, director Sharon Ott is hellbent on banishing this unpleasant sensation; the Berkeley Rep's current version goes to great lengths to be as lively, colorful, and provocative as Shaw could have wished. If as a playwright he goes on far too long -- the drama takes over three hours to unfold -- Ott and this splendid company work hard to keep us diverted.
The end result is mixed. On the one hand, the production is full of extraordinary moments; on the other hand, the play takes on its own central image -- that of a ship heading for disaster -- and nearly founders due to cargo overload.
Shaw has set his "Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes" (as the play is subtitled) in the country home of Capt. Shotover (Ken Ruta), who has built it to resemble a ship. To one side of the wall of windows, designer Kate Edmunds has hung cloth drapes that could be either sails or dust covers, giving the set a shabby, disordered appearance. A frayed Union Jack is mounted above the center door, just in case we didn't understand that this estate is meant to stand for England and her tattered empire.
The play begins with the ghostly sound of ship's bells (music and sound score are by Michael Roth, sound design by Stephen LeGrand) and the arrival of Ellie Dunn (Francesca Faridany), the hapless guest of Shotover's daughter, Hesione Hushabye (Kimberly King). Ellie is engaged to Boss Mangan (Charles Lanyer), a rich man who's too old for her, according to Hesione, whose aim is to break the engagement off. She wheedles Ellie into confessing that she doesn't love Mangan, but has fallen for a gallant hero who turns out, to Ellie's distress, to be Hector Hushabye (Stephen Markle), Hesione's romantic husband who concocts cartoonish exploits to charm the ladies.
The action of the play depends on everyone in this mostly cynical and jaded crowd experiencing heartbreak, Shaw's metaphor for the end of innocence. And to his image of the ship of state on the rocks, Shaw attaches his familiar themes: relations between men and women, the folly of romantic love, the stagnation of a class-conscious society, the immorality of warmongering industrialists. He does it expansively, in language that is frequently declamatory and nearly always epigrammatic. Characters take positions as though they were poses, which (fortunately) seems to bring out the best in the Berkeley Rep ensemble.
From Ruta, who treads the stage like an already-deranged Lear; to Linda Hoy, whose dotty Nurse Guinness provides a comforting presence; to Faridany, who as Ellie Dunn gathers strength before our eyes; to King and Lynnda Ferguson, who endow the Shotover sisters with sublime comic timing; to Geoff Hoyle, whose presence speaks for itself -- the company injects life into this elephantine script over and over again. The swiftly paced third act plays as though Shaw has snapped to awareness and realized just how long he's been declaiming. This soothes our need for dramatic development, but it can't change the lateness of the hour or, in the end, rescue the play from collapsing under its own weight.
Heartbreak House runs through Oct. 25.