In the theater world, an asterisk by an actor's name in the program indicates he or she is a member of the Actors' Equity Association. Aside from being one of the few unions that Glenn Beck hasn't demonized, the AEA represents almost 50,000 actors and stage managers across the country — negotiating wages and other elements of their relationship with theaters.
In this area, smaller productions outside of the local Equity theaters (Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theater, etc.) often feature one or two AEA actors. But in Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw, now being produced independently at the Pilgrim Church in Tremont, asterisks abound. Nine of the 10 performers are card-carrying union members, and in this case their professionalism burnishes the stage to a fine, rich glow.
Shaw was thoroughly titillated by his witty turns of phrase ("If women were concerned about men's characters, we should never get married at all."). As a result, the characters in this play expound endlessly, adding up to three acts and a run time, with two intermissions, of more than three-and-a-half hours.
But before you scratch this one off your list, consider that you're not likely to find a more delightful and crisply delineated rendering of this daunting, often fiercely comical play. Under the deft direction of Bernadette Clemens (also AEA), this production trips lightly through Shaw's welter of words and you emerge from the theater feeling remarkably refreshed, not pummeled into submission.
It all takes place in pre-World War I England in the country home of old salt Captain Shotover, an octogenarian autocrat who is just this side of senility, so he's free to tell the truth. He lives with his daughter Hesione and her husband Hector, a wedded couple who treat their marriage vows more like a get-out-of-jail-free card, allowing them to flirt and romance anyone who passes through.
And boy howdy, do people pass through this house! Hesione's young friend Ellie Dunn (Anjanette Hall, in a well-nuanced turn) and her gentle soul of a father Mazzini Dunn (a warm and tender George Roth) show up for a visit, followed by Ellie's fiancé, the older and richer Alfred "Boss" Mangan. Then the Captain's other daughter, Lady Ariadne Utterwood, arrives after a 23-year absence.
Ariadne, given an incisive rendering by Juliette Regnier, is pursued in turn by her brother-in-law Randall Utterwood, a flighty bundle of twitches wonderfully portrayed by the non-asterisked Terence Cranendonk. And did we mention tart-tongued Nurse Guiness and Billy Dunn (Mitchell Fields) — a local thief?
This is a tangled and loquacious bunch, representing a self-indulgent society largely ignorant of other forces at work in the wider panorama of life. And this dexterous complement of actors makes the Shavian wit snap and sizzle almost all the way through.
As Captain Shotover, Thomas Q. Fulton Jr. can pump more meaning into a sigh or a guttural laugh than most actors can draw from an extended soliloquy. The playful and always scheming Hesione is played by Laura Perrotta. And she is a treat as she torments John Hedges' Boss Mangan with her vexatious charms until he is reduced to a quivering mass of protoplasm.
As Hector, Dana Hart is a pillar of male pomposity, freely lying to women about his past for no other reason than to torture them, and himself, with his own shallowness. Decked out in a witty Lothario-of-Arabia outfit (thanks to costume designer Inda Blatch-Geib), Hart swooshes across the stage like a low-rent Rudy Valentino.
Even the small role of the Nurse is a standout since Paula Duesing crafts a bent posture and halting walk that says all you need to know about her character.
This show feels like the most interesting acting workshop you could ever attend — even with some soggy timing in the third act. While the Equity designation doesn't necessarily assure quality, and while there are plenty of non-AEA actors who are outstanding, this particular collection of asterisks is one to be treasured.
heartbreak house Through June 29, produced under the auspices of the Actors' Equity Association Members' Project Code, at the Pilgrim Church, 2592 West 14th St., 216-570-3403, heartbreakhouse.org.