Summer is here and that means one thing: Topanga Canyon’s Theatricum Botanicum is back in action with its palate of classic stories and theatre under the stars. Among its rotating selection of stage productions for the summer 2012 season is George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, a furiously gripping play delving into affairs of the heart, classism and high society, flawed character traits, and a world on the brink of all out war. Starring Willow Geer, William Dennis Hunt, Melora Marshall, Mark Lewis, Susan Angelo, and Alan Blumenfeld, Heartbreak Hotel (directed by Ellen Geer) is a solid rendition of a story crafted specifically for performances delivered by an apt and intelligent cast.
The setting is 1914 Britain. Nations are on the verge of The Great War. A rural corner of England rests the country home of Captain Shotover (Mr. Hunt). The good captain’s daughter, Hesione (Ms. Marshall) extends a dinner invitation to the young and dashingly beautiful Ellie Dunn (Ms. Geer). Though the latter fell head-over-heels in love for the former’s husband (Hector, played by Mr. Lewis), the crux of the story ultimately shifts to a contentious debate stemming from Ellie’s decision to marry Boss Mangan (Mr. Blumenfeld). The business partner of her father, Ellie desires to marry Mangan not because he has won her heart over, but instead because she views him as the ticket out of a life of limited economic means.
Sparked is a heated debate of love, politics, war, money, faith, and human desire, Heartbreak House has always been a powerful commentary on the human condition, and such commentary is vividly on display at the Theatricum Botanicum through witty comedy and intellectual flair. Through the merry laughs and the stimulated dialog, the audience becomes just as invested in the Theatricum’s production of Heartbreak Hotel as they would in reading the classic Shaw penned in 1919.
What makes this latest production of Hearbreak House special is its steady diet of unwavering interactions between the play’s profound and substantive characters, each of who intricately coexist despite the most nuanced of personality differences. The highlights of the show are Messrs. Hunt and Blumenfeld as well as Ms. Marshall, a trio of characters who carry Heartbreak House with commanding stage presence and memorable acting performances as jaded leader, a glib wife, and a cunning businessman. When combined with an impressionable young woman (Ellie), a smooth-talking husband (Hector), and an honorable father (Mazzini Dunn, portrayed by David Stifel), Heartbreak Hotel places quite the revealing mirror to viewers, commentating on a state of humanity that transcends beyond Shaw’s time on Earth nearly 100 years ago.
Though the production’s running time is 150 minutes, the crisp storytelling pace and the powerful punch of the humorous and witty dialog certainly makes one wonder how so much time felt like it passed so quickly. Officially debuted about two weeks ago at the Theatricum Botanicum, Heartbreak House plays in Topanga on a varied schedule through September 30. Visit the Theatricum’s website for schedule details.
Tickets are $20 and $33; the Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard, six miles north of Pacific Coast Highway and six miles south of the Ventura Freeway (U.S. 101). The theatre may be reached at (310) 455-3723.
Also included in this season’s consortium of plays are Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Women of Lockerbie.
*Note: Bill Gunther served as understudy of The Burglar during the performance that served as the basis for this review. All photos courtesy Miriam Geer.