Oct 272013

Stoneham Theatre’s atmospheric staging of Jeffrey Hatcher’s version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is a production well worth seeing — it lives up to its billing as “a new look at a horror classic.”

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from the novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Caitlin Lowans. Stoneham Theatre, Stoneham, MA, through November 10.

By Helen Epstein

Alexander Platt and Esme Allen

Alexander Platt and Esme Allen in the Stoneham Theatre production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Photo: David Costa.

What better way to usher in Halloween than with Jeffrey Hatcher’s scary, slick adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s nineteenth century novella? Commissioned by the Arizona Theater Company in 2008, this Stoneham Theatre production (which I saw in preview performance) showcases its violence and psychological punch. The staging serves up a luscious Victorian treat for actors, designers, and audience alike.

Hatcher has adapted books by Balzac, Henry James as well as Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie (see The Arts Fuse interview with Hatcher), always in an idiosyncratic way. Hatcher’s scripts are less faithful condensations than free variations on the original texts.

Instead of fully realized sets, director Caitlin Lowans and her excellent design team furnish the bare black stage space with eerily-lit movable props to suggest the drawing rooms, offices, laboratory, dissecting theater, hotel room, and various back streets and alleys where the action plays out. This minimalist approach heightens the roles of light and sound design, makes Hatcher’s episodic script even more fluid, and adds to the creepy and inexorable roll towards the climax of the play.

If you’ve never been to the Stoneham Theatre, as I hadn’t, it’s a surprise. Situated on the town’s Main Street in an old-fashioned cinema with a small neon marquee, it was named by the Boston Business Journal as the fifth largest performing arts organization in the Greater Boston area last year, drawing theatergoers from far beyond Stoneham (there’s plenty of parking and you can get there on public transportation).

Stepping up the small step into the theater lobby, you feel yourself leaving 2013 and going back in time: a good way to approach Stevenson’s neo-Gothic melodrama. When you see the strange red door standing by itself, off center, on a dark, bare stage, even though the house lights are still up, you don’t even need a spooky soundtrack to suspect the horror to come.

Lowans has chosen an exceptionally good and consistent cast of actors who are called upon to play multiple roles in multiple accents. Benjamin Evett is an intriguing and attractive Dr. Jekyll; Dale Place effective and clear as the lawyer Gabriel Utterson and others. Esme Allen is tough and lovely as the parlor maid Elizabeth.

 It not nice to fool Mother Nature --  as Dr. Jekyll in the Stoneham Theatre production

It is not nice to fool Mother Nature — Benjamin Evett as Dr. Jekyll in the Stoneham Theatre production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Photo: David Costa.

As Hatcher has conceived the play, four of the actors are cast in multiple roles, including several Jekyll “alters.” The characters take turns narrating the story which, in Hatcher’s hands, is not only about the destructive powers of science and the classic struggle between Good and Evil, but what contemporary psychologists diagnose as dissociative identity disorder. His script, however, retains many of Stevenson’s best lines and requires a Scottish brogue for Jekyll’s medical colleague Lanyon and a Cockney accent for the detective he hires to follow Hyde. While Dialect Coach Danny Bryk did a great job with his actors, the authentic accents made the dialogue unintelligible for many.

The show looks as macabre as can be – it is so scary that a mother and her young daughters left before intermission. The explicit horror movie theatrics – the preparing and swallowing lurid potions, the beatings and brandishings of walking sticks and knives, the messages stained with blood — work beautifully. But the atmospherics often get in the way of understanding the subtleties of the intellectual, ethical, and psychological themes Hatcher is exploring. I had to work hard – some of the audience members around me gave up trying.

Still, brush up on your listening skills! This is a production well worth seeing and lives up to its billing as “a new look at a horror classic.”

Helen Epstein is the author of the biography of theater producer Joe Papp and other books on the arts, available from Plunkett Lake ebooks.


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