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Heartbreak House

Remy Bumppo Productions

at Victory Gardens Theater

The Devil's Disciple

ShawChicago

at the Chicago Cultural Center studio theater

By Albert Williams

"How can you love a liar?" a young woman asks in George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. "I don't know. But you can, fortunately," her middle-aged friend replies. "Otherwise there wouldn't be much love in the world." In Shaw's quirky, garrulous plays, truth and deception teeter and totter like two kids on a seesaw; what holds them in a fragile, shifting balance is the playwright's abiding affection for people because of, not despite, their deceptions and delusions. In a time when writers and audiences alike seem to revel in easy, smugly cynical mockery of human frailties, Shaw's plays stand out for their skeptically bemused, critical, yet always compassionate fascination with human nature's mix of vice and virtue, courage and cowardice, fidelity and faithlessness, wisdom and silliness.

Shaw's fond yet probing attitude colors a pair of productions currently playing--a droll if somewhat shallow concert reading of The Devil's Disciple and a sensitive, atmospheric staging of Heartbreak House. Separated by 20 years and a world war, the plays reflect the Irish author in two different modes and under two distinct literary influences. The Devil's Disciple, a rollicking romance about heroic self-sacrifice during the American Revolution, pays tribute to the Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities, while Heartbreak House, a delicate mood piece set during World War I, honors the Chekhov of The Cherry Orchard. The first play is characterized by vigorous optimism and an eagerness to entertain; the second is an old man's elegiac, disillusioned rumination on life's fragility and futility. Yet both reflect an enduring love of human beings, if not of the messes they make of their lives.

Written in 1897, when Shaw was in his early 40s, The Devil's Disciple focuses on two men, seemingly polar opposites, who exchange places after each recognizes his true self in the other. Reverend Anthony Anderson is a pacifist Presbyterian parson in 1777 New Hampshire, a seat of colonial conflict that for Shaw was a thinly disguised surrogate for British-occupied Ireland. Dick Dudgeon, the "devil's disciple," is a scoundrel who delights in mocking conventional morality. But his scandalous posturing disguises a nobility of spirit he denies even to himself. Returning after a long absence to claim his inheritance, Dudgeon is drawn to Anderson's young wife, Judith--an attraction that's mutual though she can't admit liking such a rogue. But when a British officer arrives to arrest Anderson as a rebel, Dudgeon allows himself to be arrested in Anderson's place, posing as a preacher and thus setting the stage for Anderson to find his calling as a militiaman. Putting his own satiric twist on the conventions of melodrama, Shaw toys with traditional notions of honor and duty yet remains confident in the essential heroism of the human spirit.

The latest offering from ShawChicago--a pet project of cultural affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg that's revitalized Shavian comedy in the past few years--The Devil's Disciple clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes with intermission. A full production would run about two hours, but the readers' theater format, with actors standing behind music stands, entirely omits stage movement--something this action-packed play demands more than most Shaw works. The actors are generally fine, but they can do only so much with line readings alone; this production sacrifices much of the script's emotional texture, notably the romantic triangle between Dudgeon, Judith, and Anderson but also the troubling relationship between Dudgeon's bitter, pious mother and her long-estranged son. (Their antagonism is exacerbated when Dudgeon inherits his father's estate while his mother receives only an annuity, paid out of the interest on the dowry she brought to the marriage in the first place; very much at issue in this play is the second-class status of women.) News of Mrs. Dudgeon's death comes off here as a joke when it should carry enormous if unspoken weight: indeed, Dudgeon's bad-boy persona, a response to his mother's rigid religiosity, begins to crumble the moment he hears of her demise.

The best moments in director Robert Scogin's production are the comic ones. The actors revel in Shaw's perfectly phrased witticisms; especially fun is the hilarious encounter between Dudgeon and British general John Burgoyne--their discussion of Dudgeon's impending execution has the arch politeness of Restoration comedy. Terence Gallagher as a mischievous Dudgeon and Donald Brearley as a witheringly sarcastic Burgoyne delight in Shaw's wordplay. But Dudgeon's crucial scenes with Anderson (Richard Marlatt) and Judith (Rebecca Covey), while amusing, never convey the subtextual tension of a full production, robbing this staging of emotional depth.

Remy Bumppo Productions' beautifully acted, staged, and designed Heartbreak House, on the other hand, quivers with understated but intense feeling. Performed on the second-floor main stage of Victory Gardens Theater--formerly the home of the Body Politic, a Shavian haven in the 1980s under the late James O'Reilly's leadership--the play takes place on the Sussex estate of Captain Shotover, an elderly ex-seaman, and his family. The household is run by Shotover's married daughter, Hesione Hushabye, a seductive eccentric whose seemingly freethinking approach to life masks a meddlesome selfishness. Hesione has invited her young friend, Ellie Dunn, to visit. Ellie has recently become infatuated with a mysterious man--who turns out to be none other than Hesione's husband, Hector. But rather than being embarrassed or upset, Hesione is delighted; she revels in such trivial scandals and dismisses Ellie's romantic disillusionment as "only life educating you."

Hesione's indulgence is abhorrent to her sister Ariadne, the wife of a colonial governor who insists on being called "Lady Utterword" even by her family. Returning home after a 23-year absence, Ariadne--the kind of proper English country gentlewoman for whom the definition of "the right people" is "people who ride"--is appalled at what she considers the intellectual and emotional disorder of her family, yet she strikes up a flirtation with Hector right under her own husband's nose. Meanwhile Hesione teases Ellie's fiance--Boss Mangan, a middle-aged millionaire whom Ellie plans to marry out of gratitude for his assistance to her bankrupt father. Hesione wants to break up their engagement, especially when it's revealed that Mangan was in fact responsible for Ellie's father's financial ruin. This revelation is yet another phase of Ellie's education--her "heartbreak," which she describes as "a pain that goes mercifully beyond our powers of feeling." In Heartbreak House's bizarre climax the characters wait, paralyzed, to see whether a bombing raid will destroy them or pass them by: "Heaven's threatening growl of disgust at us useless futile creatures," Hector calls it.

In the dithery dalliances and random role-playing of this bohemian household, Shaw set out to portray what he called "cultured, leisured Europe before the war"--a class of aesthetes and intellectuals preoccupied with their own trivial pursuits while the elegant old order they represented was crumbling around them. When Heartbreak House premiered in 1920, World War I was still fresh in memory--the "great war" that proved merely a warm-up for an even greater holocaust. (Hesione's half-joking request that her father, an occasional inventor, create a weapon "that will murder half Europe at one bang" is eerily prophetic.) Heartbreak House's inhabitants face circumstances vastly different from ours today--most notably the condition of women, who in Shaw's time were defined almost entirely in terms of their husbands' social status. ("Marriage is women's business," says the "matrimonial adventurer" Ellie.) Yet as we drift toward the millennium in a post-cold war world waiting to see which religious, ethnic, or environmental problem will erupt into global disaster, Shaw's feckless, futile drifters are readily recognizable. And director James Bohnen and his first-rate cast have dug beneath the leisurely demeanors of characters living in a slower-paced world to find hearts that beat as restlessly as ours do.

Evoking Georgian England with musical line readings and languidly elegant body language, the actors make every discreetly yearning moment and ambiguous reaction count. Annabel Armour's Hesione is an odd yet irresistibly charismatic seductress, seemingly distracted until she focuses on her target with a penetrating gaze. In her unkempt brown wig and loose housedress, she's a dead ringer for Virginia Woolf--appropriately, since the play was inspired in part by a long country weekend the Woolfs and Shaws spent together in 1916. Perfectly contrasted with Armour is Cynthia Judge's chirpy, tense fashion plate Ariadne. Equally compelling are Rob Riley as Hector, an aging playboy clinging to his fading charm through the sheer force of a toothsome smile (his brief, pantomimed daydream of a dueling Don Juan wooing his lady is the evening's high point); Maury Cooper as shambling ancient mariner of a Shotover; Robert Scogin (director of The Devil's Disciple) as manic-depressive Mangan, veering unsteadily between bossy arrogance and childish whininess; and Reyna Kahan's lissome but steely Ellie.

Impeccable support is provided by Wayne Brown as Ellie's meek father, Jane Galloway Heitz as Shotover's stout housekeeper, Steve Totland as Ariadne's tight-assed, tuxedoed husband, and Donald Ilko as a cockney burglar whose intrusion adds some low comedy to the philosophical final act. The ensemble is superbly bolstered by the work of designers Timothy Morrison (set), Joel Moritz (whose lighting charts the play's course from hopeful day to mysterious night), and Frances Maggio, whose gorgeous costumes perfectly express the characters' idiosyncratic personalities as well as their stylish, doomed world. Talky, mood-driven, and ambiguous, Heartbreak House is not for all tastes; but Remy Bumppo's revival proves the play can be an unsettling, moving, and illuminating experience.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Hearbreak House theater still by Dan Rest; The devil's Disciple theater still by Robert Nick.

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