Santa Claus did not return to the North Pole this Christmas. He remained in town to portray Captain Shotover, the supernatural old salt who presides over a home filled with surprises, in the Repertory Theater of St. Louis' staging of Heartbreak House, George Bernard Shaw's tragedy of manners. As enacted with crusty panache by a beard-engulfed Thomas Carson, Shotover is an aging Santa who liberally bestows the gifts of humor, insight and best of all directness. Unlike too many Shavian characters who won't say anything in one sentence if they can say it in three, Shotover is ever to the point. Idealist and realist combined, he constantly strives to attain the seventh degree of concentration, but he'll settle for a mug of rum.
At age 88, the captain is finally reduced to living on land, but he cannot give up the sea entirely. His Sussex mansion is modeled after a ship. (One wonders if Shaw, who met Samuel Clemens six years before writing Heartbreak House, had Clemens' steamboat-influenced Hartford manse in mind here.) Scenic designer John Ezell has managed to create an extravagant abode that contains a lifetime of collected clutter while still remaining spacious. I was especially intrigued by the bongo drums bounty, no doubt, from one of the captain's voyages to the Indies. Costume designer Elizabeth Covey has clad Shotover in an old pair of trousers several sizes too large, a poignant clue that he is shrinking in his dotage.
His mind, however, remains alert. It chafes him that young people, including his own snobbish daughters, are drawn to "foolish lives of romance and sentiment." Is Shotover a sage, a madman, a prophet? We're never quite sure. He is who we choose him to be; thus he remains an ironclad will-o'-the-wisp, forever elusive and indelible.
The captain meets his match in Ellie Dunn, who has been invited to spend a weekend in the country. As the play begins, Ellie is reading Othello, a veiled hint that Shaw viewed Heartbreak House as a tragedy of Shakespearean scale. Written in 1913 (but not published until 1919, after World War I), the play is an indictment of national lethargy, an allegory about a nation idly drifting toward ruin. Shotover's ship-like abode is a stand-in for that ship of state called England, a nation that in 1913 was headed on a careless course to war. Nearly a century later, the play remains a telling reminder that any ship of state being steered by inept hands is doomed to crack up on rocky shoals.
In making that point, most of Shaw's characters are little more than vehicles for attitudes: This one is Aimless; that one is Self-Centered. All but Ellie, who personifies Shaw's hope for a future shaped by practicality. Ellie has grown up penniless. Now she must decide whether to marry "a perfect hog of a millionaire" so as to attain a life of ease and security. But it is Ellie's decision to make; she is no victim. Ruth Eglsaer's Ellie is all legs, and they never move without purpose. Eglsaer's precision is worthy of a Tinkertoy or a figure constructed from an Erector set. Yet in tandem with this precision, she exudes a refreshing naturalism. She's real.
It's a daunting challenge to hold the audience's attention in a tale beset by inertia, but director John Going knows the territory, and he attacks the script head-on. In Acts Two and Three especially, Going imposes a stillness on the proceedings so that Shaw's words and ideas can take center stage. Yet I can't help but wonder if the production might have been more involving had Going encouraged the featured actors to instill their roles with the same sense of life that works so well for Eglsaer, rather than play into the exaggerated types Shaw wrote.
"We sit here talking," one character needlessly reminds us in a moment of keen understatement. Shaw aficionados and other lovers of discourse are likely to revel in all this refined chatter. On the other hand, those who have grown accustomed to a little more bite in their drama should not be surprised if, by evening's end, they lose interest in the captain's seventh degree of concentration and instead begin to wonder if they aren't trapped in the twelfth of never.