Understanding the essence of human nature is a timeless philosophical and theological quandary in every culture. In the 19th century, it became a scientific quandary. Man’s conquest over nature was the British crown’s proclamation of the Industrial Revolution, but nature has a way of adapting and resisting scientific manipulation, often yielding unexpected consequences. The Victorian era was fascinated with spiritual dualism, the battle between good and evil. Sigmund Freud’s psychological theories of the unconscious cited repression as the root of mental illness. In this context, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 classic, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with its story of evil lurking just beneath the tepid surface, tapped into Victorian society’s fears and anxieties and continues to fascinate modern readers.
Stevenson’s short story has been adapted and revised many times for theater and film, some more successfully than others. (We all would like to forget Julia Roberts’ Mary Reilly.) The Footlight Players’ production of Charleston theater legend Emmett Robinson’s 1947 adaptation, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, measures up as one of the more successful adaptations. Director J.C. Conway has a knack for the macabre, and with Richard Heffner’s technical artistry, Robinson’s adaptation achieves a complexity not present in Stevenson’s original.
Robinson follows Stevenson’s basic story line: In an upper-middle-class London townhouse, lined with dark paneling and furnished with Queen Anne furniture, lives prominent and esteemed Dr. Henry Jekyll (David Barr), who experiments on himself with mind-altering drugs. Out of these experiments emerges a new personality, the depraved and left-handed Edward Hyde, out of Jekyll’s unconscious. It is in those base moments of anger and lust that Hyde emerges and takes over Jekyll’s mind and body, when Jekyll allows it, as he increasingly does. Barr’s understated Jekyll is appropriately a stark contrast to the crazed Hyde, but his energy and focus are heightened as Hyde. If Barr could channel that energy into Jekyll and retain the doctor’s mild demeanor, the characterization of the dual personality would be more effective and intriguing. Jekyll’s painful transformations into Hyde accentuate Barr’s sensual connection to Hyde as he morphs into the deformed creature-man.
Robinson introduces a new level of psychological and sociological complexity by adding a female character, Alice Lanyon (Grace Metropolis), niece to Dr. Lanyon (Chris Dowling), and love interest to Jekyll. Metropolis is double cast as the beautiful, angelic Alice and the robust prostitute, Melise, who symbolically serves as Alice’s alter-identity, or as Freud would put it, her id, to complement Jekyll’s id, Hyde. Through this dual casting of Metropolis, Robinson addresses the myth of the ideal Victorian woman as an “angel,” a one-dimensional, self-sacrificing woman of pure virtue. Melise’s passionate entanglement with Hyde holds the urges and desires that lie within the id: sex and aggression. Metropolis captures Alice’s purity and her devotion to her uncle, then she busts out as the feisty and sexy Melise, captivating Hyde’s lustful attention. Conway’s directorial skills and Heffner’s technical skills are at hand here. The sexual energy in the scene between Melise and Hyde fills the theater. Robinson then brings Alice out of her angelic shell, and molds her into a three-dimensional woman of flesh and blood, who “wants to kill and — ‘other things.'” “We all have an evil side, Harry. I cannot live on air and beautiful thoughts alone,” she exhorts to Jekyll.
Conway’s supporting cast of otherwise fresh faces features veteran Charleston actor Hal Truesdale as Danvers Carew, who with a voice for theater carries the torch for dry British humor, accessorized with a snifter of brandy. This is dialogue not for the Twitter set. The opening scene suffers from being too sedentary while Carew spins the gruesome tale of the blackmailer from Edinburgh, Edward Hyde. Poor enunciation and projection hinder some cast members. Others fall into the common bad habit of dropping their voices at the ends of their lines.
Heffner’s eerie production design brings together the sensory elements: haunting Romantic music, a nightmarish barrel organ, shadowy effect of gas lights, ghastly hallucinogenic combination of light and sound, all very effectively. As the suspense builds to its climax, the technical crew and cast execute the ultimate technical artistry as the scene changes to Jekyll’s laboratory. So as not to spoil the effect, I will leave it at that.
Footlight’s production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a fitting tribute to Emmett Robinson and his legacy as the community theater celebrates its 80th anniversary.