Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The first heartbreak of Ford's play occurs before the stage lights come up. Penthea is rightfully promised to her true love Orgilus, but after their father's death, her brother Ithocles forces her to marry the cruelly possessive Bassanes instead. The marriage sends Penthea into a spiral of depression and starts Orgilus on a quest for bloody revenge. Despite his own unfortunate experience and his anger at Ithocles, Orgilus makes his sister Euphrania promise not to choose a suitor without his permission. Disguised as a religious student, Orgilus discovers that Euphrania is being courted by Prophilus, Ithocles' right hand man. Ithocles returns from war displaying a newfound sympathy for his sister's plight, likely arising from his own frustration at not being able to marry Princess Calantha, who is being courted by Nearchus Prince of Argos.
All of this intrigue is easy to follow thanks to Burns' clear direction, but some of the plotlines taper off unresolved (Prophilus and Euphrania mistake Orgilus for a religious student and ask him to exchange their letters, but nothing ever comes of it) and none of the characters garner much empathy from the audience. It is hard to say whether this lack of empathy stems from the fact that all of the characters are so complicit in cultivating their own misery or if it is simply because there are so many different characters being tortured by love. Whatever the cause, this problem persists in spite of some excellent performances.
Mattie Hawkinson (Penthea) convincingly builds from stifled unhappiness to raging misery and total mental collapse. Penthea's decent into madness, during which she relives an earlier interaction with Orgilus, is gut wrenching. Gregory Isaac imbues Bassanes with a gnawing insecurity that inevitably mutates into cruelty and eventually hatred toward innocent Penthea. Isaac is only slightly less convincing in the second half as the suddenly penitent husband, an impressive feat since the script gives no satisfying justification for Bassanes' rapid and total transformation. When Josh Carpenter (Orgilus) performs his final gruesome act, the demented glint of insanity in his eyes is enough to make you believe he will really do something dangerously unhinged.
In a drama filled with dizzying emotional highs and desperate lows Daniel Miller's straightforward portrayal of Ithocles as a heroic soldier is uninspired. Textual references to Ithocles' ambitions are downplayed and any suggestion of inappropriate intent toward his sister eliminated (John Ford's more famous play 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore deals expressly with incestuous siblings). As a result Ithocles comes off unfortunately bland.
The most interesting element of The Broken Heart is its surprising ending. I do not want to give too much away, but Carpenter's deranged malice and Ebony Pullum's (Princess Calantha) unnerving stoicism make for a truly memorable experience. It may be another 400 years before The Broken Heart comes back to Philadelphia, so if you want to see John Ford's interesting, ominous and unusual play, do not miss this production.
The Broken Heart runs through April 23rd, 2017, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. To purchase tickets, visit QuintessenceTheatre.org or call 215-987-4450.