The 39 Steps: a Whirlwind Comes to Purcellville
Playwright Patrick Barlow calls The 39 Steps “an adaptation,” and I would assert that every production of it is an adaptation of that adaptation, which may account for the show’s popularity: it begs to be designed and redesigned.
The show’s original designer was John Buchan, who first published the adventures of Richard Hannay as a novel, in 1915. Then in 1935, Alfred Hitchcock redesigned the novel as a movie, one of the thrillers for which he was famous. Sixty years later, Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon turned the thriller into a stage farce, which Patrick Barlow redesigned in 2005 and then premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Since then directors have redesigned the play in German, in Spanish, in Polish, in Greek, and in Hebrew, and they’ve brought it to stages in every corner of the English-speaking world, including now the stage at the Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville.
The redesigners of this latest version of the play are Meredith McMath, the director, and Garrett Milich, who is billed as the technical director/designer of light and sound — controller of the things we see and hear. In this version of The 39 Steps, that means Milich is practically a co-director.
The play begins when its hero, Richard Hannay, gets a hankering for “something mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless,” which he satisfies by doing what each of us in the audience has done: he goes to the theater. There the fantasy of many a single man comes true for Hannay: a beautiful woman he’s never seen before asks him to take her home, to his place, without even buying her dinner first.
From that starting point, four actors run through 33 scenes playing 139 roles in about 100 minutes. Actually, the actor Phil Erickson plays only the role of Richard Hannay, and Penny Hauffe plays only the three women who become pseudo-romantically involved with him, so that leaves something like 135 roles for Kevin Daly and Tom Johnson, who are identified in the program only as Clown one and Clown two. Those two men are sometimes called upon to switch identities — and accents, and genders — from one line to the next by switching hats or walking in a circle around another character or putting their heads through an imaginary window, all of which happens repeatedly, right before our eyes, at speeds that smack of the aerobic exercises hired trainers make us do.
Repeatedly is an understatement.
Erickson and Hauffe are excellent actors, and as a long-time patron of Loudoun County theater, I’ve seen each of them deliver beautiful, nuanced portrayals of multi-layered characters in complicated situations. They handle their roles in this production quite effectively, too. Erickson, for example, tends to speak with his face, and in one of their scenes together, Hauffe shuts him up several times by covering his face with her hand. But Daly and Johnson are the show’s meat and potatoes. Because neither of them plays a character for longer than a couple of minutes, we don’t think of them as people involved in the story, or even as actors playing people involved in the story: they become the guys who change and change and change, who personify the act of storytelling on the stage, with great theatricality.
The play’s penchant for paying attention to itself extends even to Erickson, whose role is by far the most conventional. During one scene in the second half, after the beautiful woman from the theater has died in his lap and he has set out to prove that he didn’t kill her, Hannay/Erickson escapes from a local police station and makes a run for it across the moors. The script calls for the policemen/clowns to give chase, and the illusion of the chasing clowns is one of the many moments when we realize that Technical Director Garrett Milich is the fifth actor in this production.
Milich uses his MacBook to project silhouettes of the bumbling pursuers on the face of the big full moon. While Hannay/Erickson runs in place, the silhouettes behind him get bigger and bigger. Then they turn sideways, then they run upside down, then they stop and do a little dance, all of which provokes great laughter from the audience, which Hannay/Erickson can see and hear, but which he doesn’t understand.
“Are you laughing at me?” he asks with his face. But he’s not doing anything funny, so he looks over his shoulder, sees the dancing/chasing cartoon creatures on the moon, stops in his tracks, and shakes his head, first at them and then at us, as if he can’t believe he’s in a show this weird.
Moments like that, of course, are the work of the show’s ultimate designer, Meredith McMath, whose vision originates/coordinates/concatenates the thousand moving pieces of this production, a tremendously difficult task which she pulls off with great aplomb. When a technical glitch interrupted the opening sequence of Saturday’s performance, McMath appeared on stage and said that rather than make us wait through an awkward mysterious pause, she wanted to explain that there was a technical surprise with this the craziest production she had ever worked on, a production which included a lot of finely calibrated sound and light work and which could not go forward until any glitches of that nature were resolved, as she was confident they would be any moment now. She sighed and smiled at us and raised a hand to block the light that seemed to blind her. Then, upon receiving a signal from Milich, she asked, “Is it fixed now?”
In response to his affirmative, she practically collapsed in prayer. “Oh, thank God!” she uttered. “Thank God!” Then she recomposed herself and smiled and said, “Enjoy the show!”
And that we did.
Running Time: One hour and forty-five minutes, with one intermission.
The 39 Steps plays through this Sunday, June 2, 2013 at Run Rabbit Run Theatre at the Franklin Park Art Center – 36441 Blueridge View Lane, in Purcellville, VA. For tickets, call (540) 668-6779, or purchase them online.