Arena Stage mounts Shaw play and US premi'ere of Irish drama
Washington — Arena Stage has decided to play the Irish card this season with Anne Devlin's ``Ourselves Alone,'' a contemporary play about love and bombs in Belfast, and ``Heartbreak House'' in which George Bernard Shaw takes a shillelagh to English society on the eve of World War I. Both plays are about love and war in a general sense. Shaw's ``Heartbreak House'' is a three-act metaphor for the shelter of a dangerous torpor with which Europe faces its first world war, as well as a dark comedy on the war between the sexes. Devlin's bittersweet drama deals with the ``the Troubles,'' the 18-year civil war in Northern Ireland that has shattered that country and its families as surely as a bullet through a mirror. In ``Ourselves Alone,'' the focus is on three women in one politically torn family: the two Finn sisters, Freida and and Josie, their sister-in-law, Donna, and the men they love.
This American premi`ere of ``Ourselves Alone'' is the better production of the two, although Shaw is the more memorable playwright. The title of this searing play comes from the Gaelic ``Sinn Fein,'' which translates as ``Ourselves Alone'' and is also the name of the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army. It is the slogan of the militant Republicans who want a united Ireland. But the playwright borrows the slogan for the three sisters, who stand - ``Ourselves Alone'' - against the magnetic pull of their men's love for the heroics, destruction, and death of war.
Each of the women finds her life caught on the barbed wire fences of the Troubles. Tough and gutsy Josie is herself a courier for the Provos or Provisional IRA, of which her father and brother are members. She is suspicious of the Eton-bred Joe Conran, who says he's half Irish and fully dedicated to joining the Provos. She tells him, ``My Daddy used to say, `When the English withdraw, we can be human'''- and sometimes all too human, as in an unexpected nude scene revealing the vulnerability of Josie and her lover. Josie (Randy Danson) falls in love with Conran (Robert Westenberg), welcoming him to the IRA tribe and sealing the fate of her family. Conran is an informer who betrays them all to the British and leaves her pregnant.
The other sister, Freida, is a singer and songwriter who rebels against the fatalistic politics of her family. Freida (Heather Ehlers) says of all the dead hunger-strikers in Long Kesh prison and the women who have suffered for them: ``We are the dying. Why are we mourning them?'' She becomes involved with the obsessive and radical John McDermott (Thomas Anthony Quinn), who belongs to the Workers' Party, formerly the official IRA.
The third ``sister,'' Donna (Christina Moore) is the common-law wife of their brother, Liam, who was imprisoned in ``the Kesh.'' She abandons the devilish Liam for someone not mired in violence.
Devlin, a teacher in Northern Ireland and the daughter of a politician, writes with trenchant wit and biting compassion about the tragedy that seems to have no final act. During the play's London production, she won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded to an outstanding woman writing for the English-speaking theater.
Under Les Waters's exciting direction, ``Ourselves Alone'' is a compelling and complex evening at Arena's Kreeger Theater. The crackling good cast includes Randy Dandson, Christina Moore, and Heather Ehlers as the three sisters and Robert Westenberg as the charming and duplicitous Conran.
There is a creative electricity about this production of ``Ourselves Alone'' that is missing from the version of Shaw's ``Heartbreak House,'' now playing at the Arena Stage itself. Arena can do Shaw impeccably and irresistibly, as it proved a few seasons ago with ``Man and Superman.'' But while this ``Heartbreak House'' looks delightful, it is a soggy production, particularly in the first act, which, if it were a person, would expire from ennui. Shaw was a writer of some passion under all that wit, and he cared deeply about the subject of this play, as he indicated in a prologue:
```Heartbreak House' is not merely the name of the play which follows this preface. It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war.'' But the guns were already loaded, he wrote, and Chekhov and Tolstoy both knew it: ``Tolstoy did not waste any sympathy on it; it was to him the house in which Europe was stifling its soul; and he knew that our utter enervation and futilization in that overheated drawing room atmosphere was delivering the world over to the control of ignorant and soulless cunning and energy, with the frightful consequences which have now overtaken it.'' At the time he wrote ``Heartbreak House,'' Ireland was still a British colony.
On stage, the house is an Edwardian conceit, a sprawling mansion in the shape of a ship, where the dotty old Captain Shotover (Mark Hammer), a retired sea captain, spars with his two nearly femme fatale daughters, Hesione Hushabye (Tana Hicken) and Lady Utterwood (Halo Wines) and their various admirers. As the Captain says, ``I've stood on the bridge for 18 hours in a typhoon. Life is stormier here, but I can stand it.'' Sooner or later, though, everyone's heart is broken at ``Heartbreak House,'' including that of the mercenary ingenue, Ellie Dunn (Katherine Leask), who tells her villainous and reluctant fianc'e: ``You made a business convenience of my father. Well, a woman's business is marriage. Why shouldn't I make a domestic convenience of you?''
The minuet of relationships, everyone coveting someone else's romance, is the subject of some of Shaw's most devastating lines. But, under Mel Shapiro's uneven direction, the soul-stifling atmosphere that Shaw was attacking too often slips into boredom, despite the brilliance of the writing. Tana Hicken as Hesione best captures the Shavian spirit, romping off with it between her teeth with a glittering smile. And Stanley Anderson plays the dastardly Boss Mangan in such a winning way that you forgive him for upsetting the balance of the play.
The cast includes Ralph Cosham as Ellie's father; Richard Bauer as ladykiller Hector Hushabye; Henry Strozier as Lady Utterwood's brother-in-law, Randall; June Hansen as the nurse; and Richard Dix as the burglar. The stunning set is by Karl Eigstei.