Halloween “season” has brought the usual overload of candy into my life; it’s also put a slate of appropriately-themed plays into local theaters. Just as the psychological thriller The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs closes at Off the Wall, Prime Stage Theatre Co. opens its production of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in Bruce Hall’s new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel.
Prime Stage is a theater company that aims to bring literature to life on stage, and its target audience seems to be the young adult reader who may have been assigned a classic work as part of the school curriculum. It’s to be expected that their theatrical adaptations will thus hew fairly closely to the original work in both form and content. But slavish fidelity to the original is, thankfully, not part of their mission, and adaptor Hall has made some changes to the story that help give it theatrical interest and punch. (I’m going to assume, dear reader, you know the book – if not, back to sixth grade you go!). In particular, Hall has given Dr. Jekyll (Andrew Miller) a love interest in the form of Diana Carew (Katie Oxman), daughter of Sir Danvers Carew (John E. Reilly), the man Hyde murders. The story is told not from the point of view of the lawyer Seth Utterson (John Feightner) as in Stevenson’s novel, but rather with more sympathy for Jekyll’s plight (we see early in the play that his experiment has gone awry on his other experimental subject, a brown mouse) and with more focus on his hubristic and mistaken abuse of scientific knowledge (in other words, more closely aligning with Jekyll’s narrative at the end of the original book). That, along with some other slightly contemporary spins on the plot – for example, the use of a newspaper boy to cast into the past our own modern-day media frenzying, or Utterson’s veiled hints that he suspects Hyde to be Jekyll’s lover – makes the play feel fresh despite the familiarity of the story.
Under the direction of Michael McKelvey, the cast tells the story with simplicity and clarity. Karl E. Jacobson’s set, in which Jekyll’s house seems to be coming apart at the seams in parallel with its owner, allows for quick and seamless transitions between scenes situated in many different places in the city, and the fluid flow of the action helps maintain the play’s forward motion. Andrew Miller embodies the Jekyll/Hyde opposition with dexterity, and he brings enough arrogance to his portrayal of Dr. Jekyll that we can see just what part of his personality the brutal Hyde stems from. John E. Reilly captures our compassion with his representation of Carew, a man no longer in full control of his intellect, and Katie Oxman is solid as the smart, confident Diana, a woman who holds her own in the company of intelligent and better-educated men. Rounding out the major figures in the story are Feightner as a puzzled and worried Utterson, Garrett Storm as Jekyll’s righteous old friend and colleague Lanyon, and Adrianne Knapp as Jekyll’s saucy housekeeper Pauline. Together with Will Sendera, Tonya Lynn, and Anthony Gullikson in supporting roles, the ensemble fulfills Prime Stage’s mission, giving new life to Stevenson’s classic horror story about hidden evils and secret selves.