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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

An American Tragedy, Henry V and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Also see Tim's reviews of Curtains and Spelling Bee

An  American Tragedy
Erica Hawthorne (seated, left), Carl Smith (center) and the Ensemble
Photo: Ashley Smith
Hedgerow Theatre is now presenting An American Tragedy, a work that has an important role in Hedgerow's history. Theodore Dreiser's novel was published in 1925, just two years after Hedgerow opened, and Dreiser was instrumental in bringing his book to the stage at Hedgerow, where it played in repertory from 1935 until 1938. That version was a translation of a German stage adaptation. Now An American Tragedy has returned to the Hedgerow stage, this time in an adaptation co-written by its director, Penelope Reed, and actor Louis Lippa, who also appears in the production. It's a fascinating version, telling Dreiser's story in a bold, stark way. But it too often seems more like an intellectual exercise than a fully satisfying play.

An American Tragedy tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, raised in poverty by a family of street preachers. Eventually he lands a job in a factory owned by his rich uncle, and begins to climb toward success. As he makes his ambitious rise, Clyde simultaneously romances two women, one a poor family worker, the other a rich society girl. The two worlds collide, and there are, as the title suggests, tragic results.

Reed's production is successful in illustrating the guilt that tortures its central character. Whenever Clyde (Carl Smith) ponders what to do next, his father (Jeff LaBonde) appears nearby, singing a hymn that is far from comforting. And when Clyde takes his desperate and destitute lover Roberta (Erica Hawthorne) for a fateful canoe ride, it seems as if everyone he knows is hovering over the canoe, watching his every move. Zoran Kovcic's set consists of a series of black walls, subtly telling us just how bleak Clyde's world seems.

Smith does a good job as Clyde, descending believably from affability to anguish. And there are confident performances by the show's trio of narrators (Lippa, Kovcic, and Alana Gerlach), all of whom also take turns playing characters. But the evening really belongs to Hawthorne, who is marvelous as the play's only truly sympathetic character. Those who know An American Tragedy only from its updated and romanticized 1951 film adaptation, A Place in the Sun, may be surprised to find that the heiress pursued by the protagonist is not an angelic, passionate dream girl, like Elizabeth Taylor was in the movie. Here, as effectively portrayed by Meredith Beck, she's a flighty, superficial brat. This makes Clyde's pursuit of her seem more mercenary.

The story of An American Tragedy still resonates today. Unfortunately, the script for this adaptation is too stiff and formal. "Tonight's play," one of the narrators proclaims in the show's opening moments, "involves two social classes—the haves and the have-nots ... so we have divided the stage accordingly." A few minutes later, a character who appears as a narrator tells us, "And now I'd like to introduce you to another character." Throughout the evening, Hedgerow's production is determined to tell us the story in obvious, simplistic terms rather than dramatize it. Most of the characters seem more like symbols than recognizable human beings. This level of artificiality seems at odds with the raw emotions at the story's core, and prevents the audience from fully connecting with the story.

An American Tragedy has its rewards, but it too often lets its approach to storytelling get in the way of its story.

An American Tragedy runs through October 10, 2010, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $22 to $25, with discounts for seniors and children, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-565-4211, online at www.hedgerowtheatre.org or in person at the box office.

Henry V
Ken Sandberg, Josh Carpenter, Bernard Bygott and Chris Davis
Photo: Elan Gepner.
If An American Tragedy tells too much, Quintessence Theatre's Henry V tells too little. At times the story seems a jumble, with no explanation of where scenes are taking place or who the characters are. It's performed on a square stage with the audience on all four sides, and many of the actors are hard to understand, their voices swallowed up by the vastness of the high-ceiling space of the Sedgwick Theater. On the night I attended, none of the comedy scenes got any laughs—in fact, there was no laughter at all until an offhand remark by King Henry about an hour and forty-five minutes into the show.

It's a shame, because less than two months ago, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre presented a delightful production that showed how to make Henry V comprehensible to a modern audience without dumbing it down. Onstage cards, for instance, explained where scenes were taking place. In Quintessence's version, there's no explanation that the setting has changed from the King's court to a tavern, or to a French battlefield. If you haven't seen Henry V before, it's likely that you could watch this version and have no idea what's going on. Moreover, that previous production had a well-executed concept, setting the play at a prep school. Quintessence's Henry V, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have any concept behind it; costumes span the centuries confusingly (the English soldiers wear modern leather jackets but the French king and his court wear pantaloons), and men play female roles, adding an unnecessarily camp touch to the proceedings.

Director Alexander Burns' production also suffers from a slow pace; it lasts nearly three hours, and the blinding klieg lights pointed at the audience make it seem longer. But there are some redeeming touches, especially the powerful performance by Josh Carpenter in the title role. With a commanding presence, and a voice that's able to project in a way that eludes many of his co-stars, Carpenter shows just why Henry earns the respect of his men. Let's hope he turns up here soon in a Shakespeare production worth of his talents.

Henry V runs through October 17, 2010, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Ticket prices are $30, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org, or by visiting the box office.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Debra Whitfield, Robert Ian MacKenzie, Michael Sharon, Ezra Barnes and Sean Gormley
There's yet another classic being presented in the Philadelphia region this week: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, running at Bristol Riverside Theatre. Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation avoids the clichés of most adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella by splitting the role of the murderous Hyde among four actors. This lessens the burden of the actor playing Jekyll, gives the other actors a chance to stretch, and makes for an interesting exploration of Stevenson's dual-personality theme. Unfortunately, suspenseful moments are few in director Keith Baker's production; long, quiet, tedious stretches dominate the evening.

Still, there's a charismatic performance by Michael Sharon as the tortured Dr. Jekyll, and a strong, intelligent one by Eileen Ward as the woman pursued by both Jekyll and Hyde. And there are nice turns by the supporting cast, especially Ezra Barnes as the most flamboyantly evil of the Hydes. And Roman Tatarowicz' set design is striking and atmospheric. It's a spooky element of a thriller that isn't quite thrilling enough.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde runs through October 17, 2010, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $31 to $39, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100, online at www.brtstage.org, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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