Night of the Living Dead
Currently in town, for your trick-or-treating pleasure, we already have the artful, nightmarish delusion that destroys a 19th century Russian bureaucrat (Diary of a Madman); and south of that, there's a gaggle of horny teenagers opening the Book of the Dead in an abandoned cabin in the woods, for a shocking and hilarious bloodfest (Evil Dead: The Musical).
And now, if you can really stand pure psychological terror, you can proceed west for the stunning power of Night of the Living Dead, which traps six or seven people in a strange house in rural Pennsylvania.
Scott Miller directs this anguish-inspiring musical (book and lyrics by Stephen Gregory Smith, music by Matt Conner), full of desperation for the normalcy that was the world's just 12 hours earlier: leaving each living character on stage to struggle for the higher ground of reasonwithout ever managing to really gain a solid footing there at all.
It is, in fact, a play that had me looking over my shoulder for the rest of the night. The performances are so powerful, and so insistently based on maintaining an everyday frame of reference (in spite of an "epidemic of murder" outside), that you carry the dread of it with you after the show, all the way to bedtime. Scott Miller: musical theater director and master of suspense. Who knew?
It reminds me a bit of No Exit, the existential drama by Jean-Paul Sartre, in the sense that the characters seem doomed to endure an endless night of panic and terror, told mostly in strange, introspective little songs. There's even a great recounting of the opening 20 minutes or so of the classic 1968 film by George Romero, sung by the horrified Marcy Weigert, whom we discover alone in the house at lights-up. Even though she seems nearly comatose for most of the play, you can tell she's reliving something awful, in very great detail, all the time.
But this show is more emotionally focused than No Exit, being all about that horrible, frozen moment, that "deer-in-the-headlights" sense of panic, telescoped to utterly take over these peoples' lives. And let me tell you, it's nearly unbearable. Thank God it's only 90 minutes long, at least for you and me.
Zachary Allen Farmer ably tackles the lead role: trying to lend some order to the writhing fear that grips this house, though he's constantly on the edge of a violent confrontation with Mike Dowdy, as another non-zombie refugee. And the cumulative effect of the two senior males constantly at each other's throats only adds to the sense of hopelessness.
Sarah Porter is magnificent as Mr. Dowdy's wifeseamlessly weaving together the charm and propriety of a 1950s housewife, with the absolute no-nonsense attitude of the coming women's liberation movement. A mysterious bundle they bring to the basement of the house stirs only once, tellingly, in the first 80 minutes of the play.
Through it all, teenagers Joseph McAnulty and Mary Beth Black are eagereven desperateto believe whatever plan the adults come up with. The two had planned to meet their friends at the lake for a party, before things went so inexplicably wrong. I could joke about it, and there are maybe two intentional laughs in the whole production, but everyone plays it so absolutely straight that there's no shame in getting swept up in it all.
Through November 2, 2013, at the Washington University South Campus (the former CBC boy's prep school, across from Schnucks and the Esquire) at 6501 Clayton Rd. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com or call Metrotix at (314) 534-1111.
The Artistic Staff
The New Line Band