Background, left, Dan Hoyle as Harry Trench, and, right, Michael Gene Sullivan as Cokane. Foreground, center, Megan Trout as Blanche Sartorius, and, right, Warren David Keith as Mr. Sartorius in George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses at the Aurora. Photo: David Allen

It’s a pleasure to see a fine production of any play by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), but especially one of his infrequently produced first three “Plays Unpleasant,” as Shaw called them. He explained that he called the theatricals unpleasant because, in addition to pleasing the audience, they raise awareness of social evils. Sadly, many of the issues Shaw explored over 100 years ago are still very much with us today and seem to defy solutions.

The exploitation of housing for the poor is underscored in the sharply amusing Widowers’ Houses, in which the idealistic conscience of the upstanding and moneyed young Dr. Harry Trench (Dan Hoyle) is pitted against the significant pecuniary benefit available to him from the basest of London’s slum housing.

While traveling abroad, Harry Trench and his friend William Cokane (Michael Gene Sullivan) meet fellow travelers Mr. Sartorius (Warren David Keith), a rich, self-made real estate investor, and his headstrong, but beautiful daughter, Blanche (Megan Trout). Harry and Blanche fall in love and quickly become engaged, although Mr. Sartorius is concerned that Harry’s titled family will not accept Blanche because of her humble roots.

Back in London at the Sartorius mansion, Harry meets Mr. Lickcheese (Howard Swain), whom Mr. Sartorius employs as a woe begotten rent-collector. When Trench discovers that the Sartorius family income is made by renting out slum housing to the poor, he idealistically refuses to accept Mr. Sartorius’s promised largesse. Selfish and stubborn fiancée Blanche refuses to give up the benefits of her father’s fortune, and breaks off the engagement. The play has several funny twists, turns and revelations, before it reaches its engaging, but sadly realistic conclusion.

Aurora’s admirable director Joy Carlin keeps the plot moving, and the two-and-a-half hour production (with two “brisk” intermissions) goes by quickly. The cast, especially Howard Swain as Mr. Lickcheese, Warren David Keith as Mr. Sartorius, and Megan Trout as Blanche, have the juiciest parts and are particularly enjoyable. Swain’s Mr. Lickcheese appears to be a precursor to Shaw’ fabulous character, Alfred P. Doolittle in Pygmalion (and later in My Fair Lady). The role of Harry Trent (Dan Hoyle) on the other hand, appears inadequately honed by Shaw, such that, it is a surprise when his strict conscience emerges in the second act, where in the first act, he seems simply a young fool. This dichotomy in Harry’s character undercuts his plausibility. Michael Gene Sullivan acts well as William Cokane, and Sarah Mitchell, as the waiter and maid makes the most of her small role.

Widowers’ Houses, Shaw’s first play, does not veer into lengthy monologues or diatribes as Shaw is wont to do in some of his later plays. In fact, if anything, Widowers’ Houses is so engaging that it detracts slightly from Shaw’s socialist message about the evils of a capitalist society in which the poor are often victims of the rich. Aurora, however, somberly brings this message home by screening at the close of the play pictures of the homeless and statistics of rising rents in the Bay Area. It’s rare when a play can be entertaining, socially provocative and on point politically. Widowers’ Houses manages to succeed handsomely in doing it all. I heartily recommend it.

Widowers’ Houses runs through March 4. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre website.

Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...