Last night, I saw Gingold Theatrical Group's exciting new production of Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw.
GTG is billing the version as an "adaptation" as it resets this play about World War I as a play-within-a-play being performed in a theatre basement during the bombing of London during World War II.
The adaptation is inspired by actual events. The actress Hermione Gingold (for whom the company was named) performed at the Ambassadors Theatre during the blitz, and when an air raid began, people both in the theatre and from the surrounding area would take refuge in the theatre's basement. To keep people's spirits up, the actors would entertain the crowd in the basement by performing plays, and the most frequently requested piece was Heartbreak House.
GTG's production recreates this experience by handing out a fake program for the Ambassadors Theatre. (Don't worry. You'll get a Playbill at the end of the evening.) As the audience peruses the vintage advertisements in the program, the cast wanders in, each in the character of someone from the 1940s. Kimberly Immanuel (who was a part of Classic Stage Company's Pacific Overtures last year) is a waitress from a restaurant across the street, and Raphael Nash Thompson (who was wonderful in Fucking A at the Signature Theatre Company) is a night watchman.
After the doors are closed, we are introduced to the producer (Derek Smith) of a musical revue that has been cancelled due to the air raid. An actress (Alison Fraser) is dressed in the type of ridiculous costume you would expect in a revue from the 1940s, and a stage manager (Jeff Hiller) tries to keep order as we all take refuge in the theatre basement. They decide to put on an impromptu performance of Heartbreak House with the actress as Lady Ariadne Utterwood, the night watchman as Captain Shotover, the producer as Boss Mangan, the waitress as Ellie Dunn, and the stage manager filling in for a variety of small roles.
The text they perform, however, is not the one most people familiar with the play will know. Director David Staller assembled a script from various early drafts of the play, which Shaw actually started before the outbreak of the First World War. Though the play was intended as a warning to the audience about the war, it did not premiere until 1920 in a production by the New York Theatre Guild. By that time, the war was over, and the play was received as a reminder of a world that had passed rather than as an urgent piece of resistance.
Staller's production becomes a hymn to the perseverance of humanity in times of darkness. Ridiculous characters like Hesione Hushabye (played wonderfully by Karen Ziemba) and her husband Hector (a delightfully goofy Tom Hewitt) become ennobled in the face of danger, and the earnest Mazzini Dunn (Broadway veteran Lenny Wolpe) comes off as a representative of all that is good and honest in humanity.
This shift requires a different ending than readers of the play will remember. Shaw concluded the final version of Heartbreak House with a fascination with death, as was appropriate for its post-war premiere. Staller changes the finale to match the atmosphere of London during the blitz, which keeps the audience in suspense even if they already know the play.