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HEARTBREAK HOUSE, Headstrong Theatre. George Bernard Shaw’s 1920 comedy-drama, written in the wake of World War I and eerily prophetic of the greater conflict to come, is a complex portrait of dalliance and disillusion among an eccentric, slightly bohemian family and the outsiders drawn into their world. This talky, emotionally ambiguous work–inspired by a country weekend Shaw spent with Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1916–is a real stretch for Headstrong, literally a storefront whose tiny auditorium is nestled behind a vintage clothing shop run by director-designer William T. Buster. Unfortunately, Buster’s reach here exceeds his grasp. Though his costumes are lovely, his low-budget set fails to suggest the rambling estate of mystically inclined ex-seaman Captain Shotover and his married daughters. More seriously wrong are the performances of Ariel Brenner as the fickle, selfish Hesione and Elizabeth Wallace as her snobbish sister, Ariadne. They play this subtle Chekhovian work as broad farce, as if they were imitating Prunella Scales and Maggie Smith in a camped-up version of Clare Booth Luce’s The Women.

The other actors are more restrained but still superficial; only Dean Peerman as the elderly Shotover comes close to capturing the melancholy, slightly mad quality that should characterize this elegiac meditation on the loss of innocence. Maybe a lifetime of experience on and off the stage has given him the insight needed to convey Shaw’s compassionate but unsentimental vision of a world on the brink of radical reshaping.

–Albert Williams