The Footlight Players
Running Nov. 2-4, 9-11 at 8 p.m.
Sun. Nov. 5 at 3 p.m.
Footlight Players Theatre
20 Queen St., 722-4487

File Rebecca under “what the hell were they thinking?” Presumably, this stilted, creakingly slow show is intended as an homage to ’40s theatre. This is the Footlight Players’ 75th anniversary, after all, and, as with the rest of this season, they’ve picked Rebecca from their back catalog (they originally staged it in 1945).

Rebecca is a deliriously atmospheric story by Daphne du Maurier, writer of The Birds and Don’t Look Now. It’s set in Manderley, a sprawling Gothic house that amalgamates two real homes from the British author’s past. With a carefully building mood of menace and destructive passion, it should be an effective audience grabber, perfect for these dark autumn nights. Under the direction of Kyle Mims, it’s a sleep aid, instead. Rebecca‘s so slow, the Community Theatre Police should ticket it for not making the minimum speed limit.

A major pace-killer for this production is the blocking. Instead of moving fluidly from one part of the stage to another in a dramatic approximation of real life, the actors stand still, then cross the stage, then freeze again. It’s like watching a game of musical statues, except there’s no music and we’re not invited to join in. Moreover, whether they’re left frozen in the shadows or lit directly from above, the actors are often hard to see. There’s a fine line between creepy lighting and abject gloom, and Rebecca crosses it often. In the lead roles, Don Brandenburg and Christina Rhodes do some good, subtle work, but what’s the point when their facial expressions are lost in the dark?

Rhodes plays Mrs. de Winter, the Girl with No First Name who falls in love with Maxim (Brandenburg), the gentlemanly owner of Manderley. Tragedy drips from the walls, and the sadness is embodied in weird housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kain Cameron), who hates the new Mrs. de Winter for replacing Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. At a glacial pace, the new bride discovers that Rebecca was her opposite — unashamedly beautiful, gregarious, and wild. But was her death an accident, a suicide, or a cold-blooded murder?

It’s unfortunate that even when we learn the answer, the play drags on for what feels like much longer than its two-hour running time, leaving the audience with no choice but to concentrate on the inadequacies of the actors. The British accents are fine, although the jolly Mrs. Van Hopper (played by Laura Hunt) is hard to understand; the Brief Encounter-style stiff upper lips are also acceptable. But the lips aren’t the only things that are stiff. Although David Moon gives the most animated performance in the play as bad boy Jack Favell, even his arms are tucked tight against his body half the time. In less spectacular roles, Josh Keller and M.D. Monroe Jr. both need to loosen up considerably.

Apart from Moon, everyone in Rebecca is reserved. Nobody gets really excited, even when they’re angry or confessing their sins to another character. This might have worked in the Hitchcock movie version, where the camera could get up close and catch the intensity in the actors’ eyes; here, the lack of palpable passion leaves the audience hanging, desperate for some drama.

As a time capsule sample of post-war, pre-Method theatre, Rebecca is a curiosity. It shows how far stagecraft has come in the past 60 years. Yet the director seems to have forgotten that audiences have changed since then — we’re savvier about theatrical conventions and mystery clichés.

For a top-notch production about a household struggling to escape the bonds of a charismatic dead character, viewers are better referred to Six Feet Under on DVD. In the meantime, to make Rebecca a relevant piece of theatre again, the actors here should break free from their restrictive blocking, follow their instincts, and do justice to du Maurier.

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