This past weekend offered two shows that are expertly performed, skillfully designed and directed with a terrific sense of what their ensembles are capable of. They also offered something of a “three bears” dilemma, without (for this theatergoer) a “just right” solution.
Downtown, the Denver Center Theatre Company was making them laugh with the antics of Patrick Barlow’s parody play “The 39 Steps,” based on a 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 spy thriller. In Lakewood, Benchmark Theatre was challenging its audience with “A Great Wilderness.” The drama is the work of Samuel D. Hunter, author of “The Whale” (and its big-screen adaptation), which won Brendan Fraser a Best Actor Oscar in March.
Marco Alberto Robinson, Amelia Pedlow, Henry Walter Greenberg and Nate Miller are quick-change artists. For the demands of “The 39 Steps” — directed by Meredith McDonough — they must be. All told, the four play more than 50 characters in this espionage caper that finds Englishman Richard Hannay (Robinson) bored no more.
A night at the theater proves thrilling when shots are fired during a Mr. Memory act. Greenberg and Miller play the recall savant and his aide (as well as nearly every other character but for the hero and females). The mystery woman Hannay shares the loge with asks to come home with him. (Yes, there will be flirtatious winks and nudges throughout the comedy.)
In short order, Annabella Schmidt (Pedlow) is knifed. But not before an “I’m not dead yet” demise leaves time for her to mention the traitorous spy organization of the play’s title and the whereabouts of its headquarters in Scotland. Accused of the woman’s murder, Hannay must evade police, find the spy ring set to steal British military secrets and prove his innocence.
Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” is often cited as the masterful forerunner to movies about protagonists having to go on the lam and prove their innocence. And run, run, run Hannay does — like a marathon man, like a bespoke-suited Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.”
In a piece of ingenious stagecraft, Hitchcock movie’s famous scene of Grant trying to elude a crop duster while running through a desiccated corn field is re-created, shadow-box style. The shadow box proves more than once to be a splendid and amusing theatrical device for moments that would have relied on cinematic special effects. And in the spirit of this zany undertaking, other Hitchcock classics get their nods.
Along the way, Hannay makes the acquaintance of two other women: a stranger on a train and the wife of a farmer. (The wife of the spymaster and the ringleader himself are portrayed by Greenberg and Miller.) Will either woman believe him enough to keep him safe from the police?
Describing the plot of “The 39 Steps” is a little like giving away the secrets in a three-card monte game. How the play returns Hannay back to a theater is a nifty trick. And what turns out to be so very elegant here is in the way the spoof resolves its mysteries after such a terrifically silly ride.
It is the same solution Hitchcock employed — and then again not.
Into the woods
My own bias will always default to the brooding over the resolutely silly. So, the ambitions of Benchmark’s beautifully acted “A Great Wilderness” — under Marc Stith’s direction — appeal. Even if the characters in Hunter’s play, about a man who has spent his life trying to help young gay teens convert to heterosexuality, aren’t exactly a joy to spend time with.
Walt (Chris Kendall) is packing up to leave the cabin in the Idaho woods where he has received teenagers who he attempts to “cure” of homosexuality for decades. As “A Great Wilderness” opens, he’s agreed to move to an assisted living facility. He’s also agreed to take on more clients.
Daniel (Danté Finley) stands at the door of the homely cabin tentative and wary. His mother hadn’t shared much about the place or process with him before putting him on a bus. We never meet the father who found his son on a gay porn site. We will meet his mother, Eunice (Latifah Johnson).
Shortly after Walt’s introductory talk, Daniel asks to take a walk. He doesn’t return. While the teen is gone, Walt’s friends Abby (Christine Kahane) and her husband Tim (Mark Collins) arrive. Tim has a “conversion” practice in Coeur d’Alene. Abby started the camp in the woods with Walt 30 years earlier. Walt believes Abby and Tim plan to continue the work.
Daniel has been gone a spell when Tim and Abby walk in. How long it’s been, Walt is a bit fuzzy on. “A Great Wilderness” is a subtle, philosophical work, so no one defaults to panic here. Concern, yes, but not utter anxiety. The audience’s worry is likely to outpace the characters.
Having received a cryptic text message from Daniel, Eunice will travel to the cabin. Forestry ranger Janet (Corey Exline) will arrive, to help search for Daniel and then to signal just how distressed the gathered should be.
It would be so helpful if Walt could recall what exactly Daniel said to him as he was headed out the door. That he can’t nags at the play. And soon the reason that it hangs over Daniel’s absence becomes clear.
Abby and Walt were married and had a son, Isaac, who was gay. He committed suicide. “We lectured him. Took him to Bible studies. Threw scripture at him … . What we didn’t do was listen, make him feel safe,” Walt tells Daniel right before Daniel goes for his walk.
Hunter’s “The Whale,” also wrestled with the tensions between gay sexuality and conservative religious beliefs. The playwright knows this turf well. He went to a Christian school in Moscow, Idaho, where he came out to a friend who reported him. With the blessing of his parents, he transferred to a public school. That’s a lot of backstory for a play perhaps but speaks to how deep the roots of playwright’s empathy go.
There is a reason Daniel disappears into the woods so early: This is not a drama about gay identity. This is about the throes and wounds of a believer who aptly finds himself in his own vast wilds, morally. And there are few better actors in town to convey the nuances of a thorny character than Kendall.
But Kendall is not alone in making this a formidably performed work. Understated and utterly believable, Kahane guides an affecting scene between Abby and Eunice (Johnson, equally burrowed in her character), in which solace comes across as anything but. Collins too has a moment that flares when Tim rails about sin and “the culture.”
What is telling about “A Great Wilderness” is the play’s willingness to meet Walt on his own harrowing terrain, in the midst of his complex and twisted compassion. This can also be frustrating, even exhausting, if you’re hoping for easy condemnation.
“The 39 Steps” is light, very. The Hunter drama is perhaps a tad too dark. Although given the laws being enacted in several states to quash the gender-affirming health care of trans youth, the drama is also of the moment. Each production deserves avid theatergoers, just ones who know what they are in the mood for.
IF YOU GO
“The 39 Steps”: Written by Patrick Barlow. Directed by Meredith McDonough. Featuring Nate Miller, Henry Walter Greenberg, Marco Alberto Robison, Amelia Pedlow. At the Singleton Theatre in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis. Through June 18. Denvercenter.org and 303-893-4100.
“A Great Wilderness”: Written by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Mark Stith. Featuring Chris Kendall. Christine Kahane, Mark Collins, Latifah Johnson, Corey Exline and Danté Finely. At Benchmark Theatre, 1560 Teller, Lakewood. Through May 13. benchmarktheatre.com.
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