Class Act

As a reviewer, I see a lot of theater productions, and it's rare for me to want to see one for a second time. But Germinal Stage Denver has more than once mounted a play I'd have liked to re-experience. This is because artistic director Ed Baierlein picks works that are worth some thought and directs them with a sensitivity to language and meaning. This was my reaction to Heartbreak House, as it was to last year's "Circe" -- Chapter Fifteen.

Heartbreak House offers a full helping of George Bernard Shaw's wit, humor and trenchant intelligence. Baierlein has cut this long play judiciously, and for the most part, his cast speaks the dialogue well. Not all of the performances are perfect, but those that are strong are extraordinarily so.

I hasten to add that this is not one of those so-boring-it-must-be-good-for-you evenings; despite the play's talkiness, it's charming, sexy and delightful. Heartbreak House itself is a metaphor for the English upper class, pre-World War I. In his preface, Shaw divides this class into two segments: the conservative, horsey, uninformed set, and those who were cultured and kindly but indifferent to the struggles of working people and ineffectual even in their own world. The play was influenced by Chekhov, particularly The Cherry Orchard. Like Chekhov, Shaw knew -- as his characters didn't -- that their smug, safe little world was about to vanish.

Despite this serious underlying theme, Heartbreak House plays for the most part like a funny and periodically trenchant comedy of manners. The two most telling figures are Captain Shotover, the half-loony, half-wise retired seafarer who owns Heartbreak House, and Ellie Dunn, one of those marvelously smart and spunky Shavian heroines. It's not hard to see Shaw himself in the figure of Shotover, who wants to attain the "seventh degree of concentration" and who does eventually reach a state akin to grace.

There's a scene in this production that reminds me of why I make a career of haunting theaters, one of those scenes where time stops and what's happening on the stage is the only thing happening in the universe. I'm not talking about those moments that are obvious grabbers -- someone getting shot, someone weeping or yelling. I'm talking about something quieter, a current, a transference of something -- feeling, understanding -- from the stage to the audience. It occurs during a conversation between Ellie and Captain Shotover, during which she realizes her improbable love for him. This love is not (like all the other loves in this play) a spasm of ego, need or idle sexual curiosity. It's a simple acceptance of his view of the world.

They are talking about Ellie's planned marriage to a financier, Mangan. She needs it, she says, to keep body and soul together; it's impossible for hungry people to hold to high ideals. He responds: "You are going to let the fear of poverty govern your life, and your reward will be that you will eat, but you will not live."

Ed Baierlein as Shotover and Kristina Denise Pitt as Ellie are simply magical at this moment. And it's impossible not to remember Baierlein's own uncompromising dedication to his art as he speaks these words.

Heartbreak House begins when Ellie arrives at Shotover's home at the invitation of his daughter, Hesione (acted with wide-eyed joking sensuality by Suzanna Wellens). Ellie believes her fiancé, Mangan, to be a good man who rescued her kindly father, Mazzini, from penury. But she loves Hector, who won her as Othello won Desdemona, with stories of wonder and conquest. Ellie rapidly discovers a couple of things: Hector is Hesione's husband, and his stories are lies. (A little Shavian poke at Shakespeare here.) Also, Mangan is no benefactor, but someone who deliberately cheated her father. Her heart is broken.

Hesione has no problem with the fact that her husband seduced her best friend. She herself is a seductress, practicing her art on almost everyone she encounters. Hesione's sister, Ariadne, who arrives unexpectedly from India after a two-decade absence, is also irresistible to men. Authoritarian and peremptory -- and played with hilariously stern humor by Lisa Mumpton -- she represents the horsey strain within the upper class, insisting on all the social proprieties and frequently shaping them into a cudgel to bludgeon into submission anyone who annoys her. She is followed to Heartbreak House by her slavishly devoted brother-in-law, Randall.

There are no obvious villains here, though the sisters are pretty terrifying. Even Mangan turns out to be not the ruthless capitalist he seems but the pitiable man Mazzini has earlier insisted he is. Nor does Heartbreak House have the straightforward argumentative throughline we tend to expect from Shaw. Ideas swim up, are contradicted, mutate, get repeated. You sense the playwright in an exploratory mode. There is no real resolution, either, only a group of people facing the unknown with all their limitations and their flickering strengths.