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“Heartbreak House” a long sit, but the acting quality may make it worth the effort

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)


George Bernard Shaw, considered by many to be the premiere English playwright of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, had very set opinions, which he expressed in his writing.  A member of the Fabian Society, which was an utopian movement dedicated to establishing a socialist society, he attacked the English education system, organized religion, the blindness of the upper classes in ignoring not the needs of others, but for living lives of deceit and hypocrisy.


Shaw felt that women were the “wiser” and “stronger” of the sexes, that war was an unnecessary evil, and that people and governments could change.


He wrote dramas filled with comedy and often included farcical overtones.  He mocked and satirized to make his points.  Many of his plays, as was the style of the day, were three act, three-hour epics.


Shaw is often compared to the Russian playwright, Chekhov, who also wrote of the unwillingness of the upper classes to recognize that “the revolution is coming,” thus earning him the title of the “literary father of the Russian Revolution.”  Shaw never met with the political effect of Chekov, but his attitudes toward women’s equality and the rise of Socialism, came to pass.


Shaw wrote “Heartbreak House” in 1912, but due to the outbreak of World War I, the opening was delayed until after the war.  Ironically, many of the pronouncements he had made in the script were enacted by the time the play was produced.


The play takes place mainly in a room in a manor named Heartbreak House, which is designed to recreate the interior of a sailing ship.  The place is owned by The Captain, a former maritime skipper.


The house is a metaphor for a place where the captain and his crew (the family and guests) journey together through good and bad, beautiful days and rain- filled eras.


Each of the characters in the play represents some facet of British society.  There is Mangan, the business tycoon, who has been offered a place in the British government but is, in reality, a fake; the captain’s daughter, Hesione, a modern Brit with Bohemian attitudes; Mazzini, a nice person who is taken advantage of; Ellie, Mazzini’s daughter, who will do anything to marry for money as she believes this is the only way to happiness; Ariadne, the old time/old liner who believes manners and class standing are most important; and Randall, the pampered man who has inherited wealth and has no reason or purpose in life.  They each represent what Shaw saw as, “ignorance and indifference exhibited by the upper and upper-middle class that was self-indulgent and lacked the understanding of the central issues of that days British society.”


Hanging over the entire play is the threat of war, which, even when it comes, is not fully realized by the inhabitants of Heartbreak House.


Traditionally, local play productions are presented by theatrical producers (PlayhouseSquare, Great Lakes Theatre), sponsoring theatres (e.g., Dobama, Beck Center), civic sponsors (Solon Center for the Arts), or educational institutions.


“Heartbreak House” is produced under the auspices of the Actors’ Equity Association Members’ Project Code.  The MPC was created in 1987 by Equity, the labor union that represents professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States, for the purpose of permitting members to showcase their talents.  As of now, according to director, Bernadette Clemens, this  staging of “Heartbreak House” is a one-time event.


Most plays showcased in the area, unless they are a professional touring company, may have none or a few equity members.  In this production eleven of the twelve of the cast are equity members.


One issue with Shaw is that his plays are long. Most modern productions are cut so that they run about 2 hours.  Not this production.  It is the full script.  This gives the viewer the advantage of hearing the entire presentation of the Shavian language as the author intended it.  Viewers who are used to the recent trend in theatre of ninety-minute stagings will probably find this a long sit.


The cast are all excellent, but, due to the very live acoustics in the Pilgrim Church theatre, there are echoes which bounce around and make for unclear sounds.  This is especially obvious when actors, trained to project in large performance spaces and proscenium stages with no microphones allow their full voices to boom in the small enclosure.  This makes understanding difficult. Also, because of the echo, those speaking in heavy dialects sound garbled.  It’s a shame because, though the acting is superb, many of the spoken words are unintelligible.


Director Bernadette Clemens’ staging was excellent and the pacing kept the show moving, but she needed to work with some of the cast to modify the yelling and vocalizations to avoid sound overload.


Jason Coale’s scenic and lighting designs and Inda Blatch-Geib’s costumes enhance the production.


Any organization using the Pilgrim Church auditorium must work on sound baffling and make their casts aware that excessive projection equals a lack of vocal clarity.


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Those interested in being exposed to George Bernard Shaw and his philosophy of life,  the beauty of his language, and his use of humor and satire to develop his message, and are willing to sit through three hours of words, words and more words, many of which can’t be grasped because of the echo in the theatre, will enjoy the MPC production.


“Heartbreak House: runs through June 29, 2014 at Pilgrim Church in Tremont.  For tickets  call 216-570-3403 or go to