Central Square Sends Up Romance Novels with Hilarious ‘Aching Heart’ (4.5 Stars)

HER ACHING HEART – Written by Bryony Lavery; Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner; Produced by The Nora Theatre Company at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, through August 10.

I was not sure what to expect when I went to see ‘Her Aching Heart’, now being staged at the Central Square Theater by the the Nora Theatre Company. I loved the idea of a send up of trashy romance novels, particularly the twist of an “historical lesbian romance”, but was wary of watching just two actresses play multiple comic parts – including male characters – and adding musical numbers to boot. Character driven comedy is hard enough without the added burden of having to make quick costume/persona changes. That’s a lot of moving parts to integrate, but I am thrilled to report that it works – really well – thanks to the efforts of talented young actresses Lynne Guerra and Aimee Rose Ranger, who are more than up to the task in this very funny spoof.

The play opens with Guerra’s character Harriet “coming to” next to a near empty gin bottle, after unsuccessfully trying to drown out the pain of a bad romance. Her counterpart (and soon to be lover), Molly is going through the same scenario, only with a bottle of Jameson’s whiskey. They are both soon transported from their misery to Victorian England via a trashy romance novel (with the same name as the production, ‘Her Aching Heart’) that they are both simultaneously reading, and that’s where the show really takes off.

Harriet becomes Harriet Hellstone, a haughty and aristocratic lady who must stave off her many admirers while remaining blissfully unaware that she is not the center of the universe, abusing the lower class by using them (literally) as stepping stools when she must dismount from a horse or cross a threshhold. Playwright Lavery supplies her with brilliantly campy dialogue, torn from the pages of pulp romance novels. “Small wonder I am ardent and wilful!,” she says as she prepares for her fox hunt. “Small wonder London society is agog with my outrageous pranks. Little wonder that a devil of discontent mars my otherwise lovely countenance!” Guerra is picture perfect for this role, combining a kind of regal beauty with lithe movement (she’s a trained dancer and it shows) and appears to have been born for this role.

Ranger plays the diametric opposite of Harriet, with her demure peasant girl Molly Penhallow so gifted with sweetness and compassion that she is able to nurse dying creatures back to health with just a stroke of her hand and a kiss. When Molly comes across a wounded fox, she says, “Oh, poor thing…you’re quivering with fright! What can we do? I’ll take you home to my poor but specklessly clean cottage…” Ranger has wide expressive eyes and she uses them to great comic effect in this role. The two women meet when Harriet, hot in pursuit of the fox during the hunt, stumbles upon Molly protecting the frightened little creature. The two argue bitterly over the fate of the fox (who meets a hilarious end), which of course leads to a torrid romance.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, Molly and Harriet are beginning their own courtship, minus the Victorian histrionics and fireworks. It’s a sweet little love story, but serves mostly as a framing device for the over-the-top antics of the women back in the 18th century. But in the present, their characters do a number of very touching and clever musical numbers, backed by Veronica Barron’s talented combo (two violins, piano and guitar) . Guerra appears to be a trained and accomplished singer while Ranger is clearly not, but the director wisely lets her interpret the songs in her own voice, which is pretty effective.

In addition to playing the modern day lovers and Victorian ladies, Ranger and Guerra tackle a wide range of characters. While the male characters are okay, the female characters they adopt are hysterical – particularly Guerra’s insanely over-the-top shaky Grandmother and Ranger’s gritty servant woman, who Harriet asks about love and gets an uproarious answer.

Throughout the show, Guerra and Ranger look like they are having a ball and they happily bring us along for the ride. They also manage to keep straight faces delivering the most warped dialogue, and that is no easy trick. This is a very funny, very entertaining show, and at the ticket prices (beginning at $15) you won’t find a better bargain in Greater Boston theater. For more info, go to: http://www.centralsquaretheater.org/