By Stephanie Ottey
Once in a while, a play comes along that has such a complicated plot that it’s difficult to describe it. Once ever, a production comes along where the audience is asked to refrain from speaking about the plot altogether, and that production is The Victorian Player’s “Below the Surface.”
It’s printed right in the program: “Please DO NOT discuss any of the details about this show to anyone who has not yet seen it. Allow them to experience all of the mystery and intrigue just as you did.” So, at the request of director J.E. Ballantyne Jr., you’ll find no clues to the plot of this mystery here.
This may seem to pose a unique problem to someone whose main objective is to describe a theatrical production, but fortunately, “Below the Surface” has enough other notable aspects that there still is plenty to discuss.
The production is a premiere, something the Victorian Players have been specializing in of late, and so author Craig R. May was in attendance opening night. Though the script has been offered in a staged reading before, this is the first opportunity for audiences to see it produced in full.
May’s story is twisty and turny, and this production is surely a fantastic workshop opportunity to discover what works and what doesn’t in the telling of it. Ballantyne has made some smart choices.
The play is set in 1950, and May does a remarkable job in keeping his dialogue true to the writing style of the period. He refrains from using inappropriately contemporary language, and Ballantyne matches that style by leading his cast to speak in articulate, restrained tones.
The cast members maintain a strong clarity in their speaking, allowing the audience to follow the plot easily while building an air of formality and solemnity.
Dawnelle Jewell, Tom Kusiowski, Brandi Hughes, C. Richard Haldi, Linda McGrath and Ryan Newell are the right choices for their respective roles.
Collectively, the cast creates a feeling of suspense from the first line of dialogue. The coolness this conveys is appropriate for a mystery, but unfortunately leaves little room for character development — all of the characters in this show run surface-deep.
The surprises written into the script are substantial — just when you think everything has been revealed, another shock comes to light. There was a lack of urgency on opening night, though, so calling “Below the Surface” a “thriller” seems generous. The show is 21/2 hours long including intermission, and a shortened run-time would have made the action more compact and thus more gripping.
If you want to find out what it’s really about, though, go and see it. It’s an entertaining evening — just don’t tell anyone why.
“Below the Surface” plays on The Victorian Players’ stage through April 21.
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call 330-746-5455.