Theater Review: ‘Downton Abbey’ exposed at Unadilla
By Jim Lowe
Staff Writer | July 20,2013
Jim Lowe / Staff Photo
Ellie (Caroline Wheeler), right, explains her desire to marry for money to an exasperated Hesione (Mary Wheeler) in Unadilla Theatre’s “Heartbreak House.”
MARSHFIELD — George Bernard Shaw’s merciless and scathingly funny satire of British high society, “Heartbreak House,” takes a somewhat different look at “Downton Abbey.” Imagine what would happen if Oscar Wilde took off the gloves.
Unadilla Theatre opened a delightful production of this seldom-performed masterpiece Thursday at its new Festival Theatre, cunningly directed by Bill Blachly, the community theater’s founder and artistic director.
“Heartbreak House” strips naked the pretensions of the pre-World War I aristocracy, poking fun at its members’ pointless lives of leisure with the best of Shaw’s rapier wit. A weekend house party provides the perfect stage for this striptease of moral and social values.
What makes “Heartbreak” riveting and compelling is the jigsaw puzzle of romantic relationships. Hesione Hushabye, who is fascinated by men in general, is married to Hector, whose tall tales of adventure persuade much younger women to fall in love with him. One such is the charming Ellie Dunn, who is engaged to the elderly business magnate Boss Magnan.
Lady Utterwood, Hesione’s sister, arrives unexpectedly, with her brother-in-law Randall in tow. Her haughtiness, while off-putting to the others, proves a fatal fascination for Hector. Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn, amazingly ineffectual, and Capt. Shotover, the eccentric father of Hesione and Lady Utterwood, are the only ones at all comfortable in their own skins.
It’s Shaw’s psychological precision that makes “Heartbreak House” so deliciously funny.
Thursday’s performance marked the best opening night at Unadilla in a long time, thanks in part to a largely excellent cast. Mary Wheeler, recently seen in Vermont Stage Company’s “Good People,” was a most charming and seductive Hesione, while Matthew Winston proved a dashing if zany Hector.
Caroline Wheeler (Mary’s daughter) successfully mixed the innocent ingénue with cunning little vixen as Ellie, while Zephyr Teachout was a wonderfully haughty prig — with some definitely more earthy qualities — as Lady Utterwood. Clarke Jordan was perhaps his best ever as the seemingly crazy but truly canny Capt. Shotover.
David Klein was perfectly comical as the overblown captain of industry, Magnan, contrasted totally by David Kahn’s Mazzini Dunn, Ellie’s ineffectual but moral father. Billy Weaver made Randall, smitten with Lady Utterwood, perfectly pathetic. Margie Yoder was quite funny as the blunt Nurse Guinise.
Thursday’s opening night was largely fast-paced and cohesive, but the tempo broke down a little in the third and final act — which needs to be quick. Subsequent performances should tighten up the finale. Regardless, it was great fun.
Thursday’s performance also marked the opening of Unadilla’s new Festival Theatre, held up a year because of code issues. A thrust stage set below the seating on three sides provided great sight lines and allowed for a two-story stage area. It worked quite nicely.
Unadilla has returned to its Shaw tradition — and what fun!
Unadilla Theatre presents the George Bernard Shaw comedy “Heartbreak House” July 18-Aug. 3 at its new Festival Theatre, 501 Blachly Road in Marshfield. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Tickets are $20, $10 for 12 and younger; call 456-8968 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.