The Panhandle Players wrapped up the last of its four plays this season with a production of “Deathtrap” that was a blood-red jewel around the neck of its second year at the Chapman Auditorium.
Patrons are investing both in tickets, the three performances last weekend drew about 500 playgoers, as well as in the resurrection of the auditorium as a stately venue for live, or in last weekend’s case deadly, theatre. Donations for future enhancements, on top of the thousands spent by the community theater troupe on sounds, lighting and curtains, are ambling in, like those who enjoyed last weekend’s show.
Before I reflect excitedly on how fine a production “Deathtrap” was, it need be pointed out Players is a welcoming bunch of thespians, an equal opportunity gaggle of artistic people whose ranks, quite understandably, are riddled with favoritism, cronyism and conceited cliques. That's how artists are. Auditions are held for each production, which this year numbered four, squeezed in a four-month season whose schedule conformed with the migration patterns of snowbirds. Usually auditions are about two months before the show opens, allowing for sufficient rehearsal time.
This year. former Players President Judy Loftus wanted to direct her most ambitious production to date, the three-act murder-riddled mystery by Ira Levin, and so she got an early start and chose the five actors she knew had the experience, talent and dedication to carry it off. It won’t be this way again; the Players have a strict policy of open auditions. But for this show at least, it ensured she would have a cast up to the task of three months of rehearsals, to fully refine a set piece of five equivalent major roles.
Indeed, they were up to the task, and then some. Mark and Natalie Parsley, and Players President Ed Aguiar were up to job of creating the set, which dripped tastefully with the sort of money found in Westport, Connecticut, where an aging playwright, once rolling in the clover of a smash hit, now has a string of nothing, a case of writer’s block so emotionally excruciating that he’s willing to kill a young playwright from his seminar, just to steal his work.
David Stedman, a retired clinical psychologist with the VA, created a most loathsome Sidney Bruhl that only cold smugness and self-absorbed doubt, coupled with un-called-for self-adulation, can truly bring to life. His physical presence, not always easy for a man at 70, was energetic and staunchly discomfiting. It may be difficult for him to find work now not as a villain.
Royce Rolstad, as young playwright Clifford Anderson, matched Stedman’s performance with a carefree, seemingly likeable guy who is in fact even more of a psychopath than Bruhl could ever dream of. Rolstad, used to laugh-aloud comic stuff, showed he could handle a more challenging role, and in doing so turned in a smooth, suave performance, understated, cautious, calculating.
The shrieking horror of the show, Sidney’s wife Myra, was delivered with emotional burn by Megan Shiver, a young actress amidst the grey hairs who populate Players. There is a mesmerizing quality to Shiver’s subtle delivery, piercing, just enough but never too much. If the audience wasn’t shaken by her panic and death, they have no appreciation for such things.
The two other characters balanced the trio, with weight on the far ends of sobriety and giddiness. Jerry Hurley, as attorney Porter Milgrim, was just what the show needed, a pleasant friend, witty and unintense, who probably gets boring after a while. That excitement on the other extreme, the Dutch psychic Helga Ten Dorp, was captured in a rollicking contribution, by Sally Crown. She provided the all-important laughs that ensure that three deaths witnessed in the space of two hours do not leave anyone fretful or dismayed.
Loftus added an Alfred Hitchcock figure, played by Gary Niblack, who introduced the play, and later made a cameo, ensuring the show would not take itself too seriously.
Instead, with a dazzling, and sometimes a tad too heavy, interplay of sound and lighting, the work of Patrick Leach and Ramon Valenzuela helped make Loftus’ direction crisp and moving. This was a perfect finish to a successful season at the Chapman.
David Adlerstein is a member of the board of directors of Panhandle Players.