CAMBRIDGE — “Last night I dreamt I went to Helstone Hall again.” That’s the setup for British playwright Bryony Lavery’s uproarious 1990 comedy “Her Aching Heart,” and the reference to the opening sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s novel “Rebecca” (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”) is quite deliberate. Lavery’s conceit is that two contemporary British women, Harriet and Molly, find themselves reading the same lesbian gothic bodice ripper (also titled “Her Aching Heart”) and start to fall in love. The play calls for just two actresses, who portray Harriet and Molly as well as their namesakes and various other characters in the bodice ripper. In the Nora Theatre production at Central Square Theater helmed by the Nora’s new artistic director, Lee Mikeska Gardner, Lynn R. Guerra and Aimee Rose Ranger bring Helstone Hall to delectable life.
Lavery’s gothic novel is a page turner. Set in Cornwall, it breathlessly limns the blossoming relationship between spoiled, wealthy Lady Harriet Helstone and 18-year-old village maiden Molly Penhallow. They meet when good-hearted Molly tries to save a fox from the Helstone Hunt, and it’s love-hate at first sight. The novel’s minor characters include Lady Harriet’s Cheapside-born maid, buxom young Betsy; out-of-pocket fop Lord Rothermere, who’s looking to bridle Lady Harriet; Molly’s “cheery, nut-cheeked” Granny; and stableboy Joshua, who’s keen on Molly and never mind that she may be his sister. With just two actresses, the play calls for some quick costume and accent changes.
Many of Lavery’s best lines don’t get heard by the theater audience, since they come in the form of stage directions. During the initial contretemps between Lady Harriet and Molly, the author writes, “The fox takes an active interest in this exchange.” Later, when Lady Harriet fights a duel of honor (she’s trying to preserve hers) against Lord Rothermere, Lavery notes she’d be pleased if the antagonists could “cut candles in two, swing from chandeliers, do stunts etc.” But there’s plenty of hilarity left for the actresses, as when Lady Harriet gushes, “The sun streaks like a basset hound across the fields,” or when she offers Molly the care of a young roe deer whose mother, she explains, “died in a . . . cooking accident.”
Contemporary Harriet and Molly are a more sentimental pair. In soliloquy, they express themselves through songs whose lyrics wed W.B. Yeats to Stephen Sondheim. In conversation, they’re generic. The second act finds them fusing with their gothic counterparts. Harriet vacations in France and is caught up in the French Revolution, whereupon the abandoned Molly becomes a votive nun in the order of Our Lady of the Hollows.
“Her Aching Heart” is an invitation to overact, and Guerra and Ranger don’t entirely resist it, but these are winningly detailed performances. Ranger is a blissfully obtuse peasant Molly (and adept with her puppet fox), a cheeky, cockney-accented Betsy, and a coarse, bluff Lord Rothermere. Guerra’s Lady Harriet is arch and patronizing, her Granny palsied, her Joshua dimwitted; she also does a mean Madame Defarge in the shadow of the guillotine. The actresses even give distinction to contemporary Harriet and Molly, who seem that much blander for being Americanized.
Both ladies sing acceptably, and they’re at home with Veronica Barron’s unobtrusive original score for guitar, keyboard, and violin. Leslie Held’s imaginative costuming facilitates the transitions; Steven Royal’s set includes a giant tilted mullioned window and a backdrop of Helstone Park’s gnarled oaks and spreading birches. There’s no swinging from chandeliers during the swordplay between Lord Rothermere and Lady Harriet, but Guerra and Ranger do make imaginative use of the playing space. It’s all enough to make you want to visit Helstone Hall some night.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.