Darko Tresnjak is looking forward to taking a break this summer.
Hartford Stage's much-lauded artistic director spent the winter crafting his knockabout version of Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors," then spent the next several months in New York readying "Anastasia" — a hit at Hartford Stage last season — for Broadway, where it's currently playing at the Broadhurst Theatre. He's back in Hartford now, but staying in the early 20th century story-wise, to steer a new production of George Bernard Shaw's tumultuous social satire "Heartbreak House."
"'Heartbreak House' is not a safe choice," Tresnjak concedes. "But it speaks to me. It's my ship in the middle of a storm."
A winter illness forced Tresnjak to reconsider his original choice of another Shaw play, "Saint Joan," for the season-ending slot at Hartford Stage. He'd been unable to do the research and preparation he felt was necessary to tackle the religious drama.
"Heartbreak House" has been called a comedy, a tragedy, a dream play, a "discussion play," a prophecy and more. The playwright himself subtitled it "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes." The Russian whose manner he's referring to is Anton Chekhov, whose plays (including "The Cherry Orchard") Shaw had championed as a theater critic.
"Heartbreak House," Tresnjak says, is about "a world in turmoil." Like Chekhov, Shaw examines the behavior of a family during a great social upheaval, in this case the outbreak of war.
The last time Tresnjak directed the play, at Boston's Huntington Theatre in January of 2002, 9/11 had recently happened. Tresnjak says he had to be convinced by the Huntington's Artistic Director Nicholas Martin to let the show go forward. He's now pleased he saw it through, as he saw how deeply it connected to audiences at a time of national grieving and vulnerability.
"To get back to it now is a blessing," Tresnjak says. "It's still one of my favorite plays." He feels the country is in a different sort of turmoil now, polarized by the 2016 presidential campaigns. (One of the chapters in Shaw's 40-page prose introduction to the published script of "Heartbreak House" is actually called "The Mad Election." Another is headed "The Dumb Capables and the Noisy Incapables.")
Tresnjak thinks a character in the play, the brash businessman Boss Mangan, may have special relevance today. There's a serious love-versus-money romantic conflict in the play that always seems to have some current-events corollary; when Tresnjak did it in Boston, the Enron scandal was brewing.
The director deems "Heartbreak House" "sometime devastating, but very funny." For that reason, "it can be tricky to cast." For the central role of Captain Shotover, a quirky inventor who lives in a mansion that is shaped like a great ship, he found Miles Anderson. "I hadn't worked with him before, but when I thought about him for this role I got very excited," Tresnjak says. "I knew about the extraordinary roles he'd played at the Old Globe [in San Diego, where Tresnjak was artistic director from 2004-09]. He is originally from Zimbabwe, then worked in the U.K., then the U.S. There's something adventurous about his spirit."
As Shotover's daughter, the relatively sensible Lady Utterword, Tresnjak cast Tessa Auberjonois, because "she has always looked so mature."
"I know this play so well, it is guiding me," Tresjnak says. "It's like motorboats — you get in the wake. It changes on a dime. I wish more playwrights would study Shaw. He understood the unpredictability of human nature. Contradiction comes in the blink of an eye. This play is a product of doubt. It's what Shaw wrote when the First World War was shaking up every preconception."
He also marvels at the beauty of the writing. He described a key Captain Shotover monologue, which begins "Man's interest in the world is only the overflow from his interest in himself," as "Shaw's version of 'The Ages of Man'" (from Shakespeare's "As You Like It"). "When I first read it," the director says tenderly," it reminded me of my mother. She told me to never settle. Shotover is worried about his daughter living a life of foolish romance."
The Hartford Stage production should be very different from the Huntington one of 15 years ago. For one thing, there's a whole different design team — the one Tresnak had assembled for "Joan of Arc." (Several of the Huntington "Heartbreak House" designers were involved with Tresnjak's production of the musical "Anastasia".)
For another, "I'm older," Tresnjak says. "I look at my notes from that production and I start arguing with myself."
HEARTBREAK HOUSE is at Hartford Stage through June 11. Performances are Tuesday through Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., with added 2 p.m. matinees on May 20 and 24 and June 3 and 10. There are added 7:30 p.m. Sunday performances on May 14 and 28. Tickets are $33 to $86, $18 for youth under 18. 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org.