Berkeley Repertory Theatre picked an appropriate play with which to kick off its fortieth season: George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, which it’s staged once a decade ever since Michael Leibert founded the company in 1968 with a College Avenue storefront production of Woyzek. In fact, with this production Heartbreak House becomes the play Berkeley Rep has done more than any other (although another Twelfth Night or The Importance of Being Earnest would even the score).
Shaw’s first full-length play after World War I is a comedic masterpiece deceptively sweeping in scope, starting as a comedy of manners about a poor girl marrying for money and ending as a broad-ranging philosophical rumination on where on earth society is headed, or at least was headed in 1919. As such, it can also be a hard play to pull off, but if done right it’s sublime.
For those with long memories, former artistic director Sharon Ott’s superb 1996 staging was a hard act to follow, but associate artistic director Les Waters does a bang-up job with his production on the large Roda Stage. After a slightly slow beginning, the generally superb cast sees to it that the Shavian wit sparkles and that the longer speeches, while noticeable, aren’t too intrusive.
Michelle Morain holds court marvelously as the bohemian Hesione Hushabye, taking impish delight in the chaos around her. As her curmudgeonly father Captain Shotover, who isn’t half as dotty as he appears to be, Michael Winters has a terrific knack for tossing off profundities and rapier witticisms so casually that they hit you with a belly laugh a second or two later, once you realize you’ve been hit.
Susan Wilder turns on a dime from imperious to hysterical to brazenly coquettish as Shotover’s snobby, long-absent daughter Lady Ariadne Utterword. Particularly priceless is Stephen Caffrey as Hesione’s husband, compulsive ladies’ man and florid prevaricator Hector Hushabye, with a hilariously put-upon attitude toward all these women who insist on being seduced by him.
Fresh from a year as junior member of ACT’s core company, Allison Jean White takes a while to warm up as Ellie Dunn. She doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself in the beginning, standing inert as Ellie adapts to the chaos around her, but she becomes delightfully lively as her character comes into her own.
David Chandler’s similar progression from neglected background figure to center of activity is more visible as her fiancé, the “Napoleon of industry” Boss Mangan, who starts as a stiff-necked snake in the grass but becomes hilarious as he reaches the end of his tether. Dialect and text coach Lynne Soffer brings little to the role of Nurse Guinness, and a running gag about her persistent use of childhood nicknames for the sisters is lost in her halting delivery.
Michael Ray Wisely is amusingly pettish as Ariadne’s lovesick brother-in-law Randall “The Rotter” Utterword. Matt Gottlieb makes Ellie’s milquetoast father Mazzini Dunn particularly likable, and Chris Ayles is delightful in a small role as a repentant burglar.
The action is ornamented handsomely by Anna R. Oliver’s playful period outfits and Annie Smart’s spacious set of a quirky, spacious living room (or “the poop,” as Captain Shotover calls it) with ships, planets, and a taxidermic menagerie hanging from the ceiling. Obadiah Eaves’ incidental music is haunting and judiciously employed for scene changes rather than to underscore dramatic moments.
Despite the protestations of the more strait-laced characters, Heartbreak House isn’t a madhouse and Waters and his cast don’t try to make it one. The characters may be colorful and the things they say often hilarious, but there’s a melancholy sobriety here, too, and this production hits the changes in tone from major to minor beautifully.
The denizens of the household cast a sardonic eye at the excesses of society, but they’re not in opposition to it so much as outside of it, and there’s an increasing sense in the play that the world is happening somewhere else, not here. “We have been too long here,” Hector complains. “We do not live in this house: we haunt it.” He isn’t wrong, and the strength of this production is that it makes you understand that truth and want to remain there anyway.