BWW Review: LOVE FROM A STRANGER at Little Theatre Of Mechanicsburg
The suspenseful mystery genre of theatre is one that should always be approached with caution; the mixture of sprinkling around clues without giving up the ending to the audience is one that can be difficult to get just right. However, at Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg, their production of LOVE FROM A STRANGER has managed to grip the attention of the audience, and the reviewer in particular, in ways they may not have imagined.
Agatha Christie's 1924 novel Philomel Cottage was given new life in 1936 by Frank Vosper, who adapted the book for the stage in a new play entitled LOVE FROM A STRANGER. The show opened in the New Theatre in London in March of 1936. The production was then moved to the Queen's Theatre in May, and then to the Streatham Hill Theatre for a week. The London production received exceptionally positive reviews in response to the thrilling nature of the show, and the Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg rendition of the tale certainly deserves nothing less. The story follows Cecily Harrington, an unhappily engaged woman who soon before her wedding is introduced to Bruce Lovell, a charming young man who manages to sweep Cecily off her feet. The two elope to a cottage in the country, but everything may not be as picture-perfect as others may believe. While the "happy couple" are undoubtedly the stars of the show, the production's supporting characters are due for significant praise as well.
For every serious situation, there is a glimmer of humor to be found. In LOVE FROM A STRANGER, this comes in the form of Louise "Lulu" Garrard, Cecily's enthusiastic and outspoken aunt. As portrayed by Nancy Kraft, Aunt Lulu is the perfect representation of the relative you invite to Christmas dinner only because you have to: she is bold, she is overbearing, and she clearly imagines herself to be an expert on everything. Kraft does a particularly commendable job when creating an Aunt Lulu that commands the stage in each and every scene she is a part of, a woman who obviously cares for her niece's well being and yet can't stop herself from criticizing her every move. Kraft's Lulu reeks of self-imposed sophistication, regarding herself as much more important than she actually is and more than happy to give a strong opinion on each matter. Her commentary and comedic timing is one that the audience appreciates during the mounting tension of the show, and Kraft's stage presence is particularly powerful. Aunt Lulu is the perfect source of comic relief, and Kraft was the perfect actress for the job.
The roles of Hodgson and Ethel also add a bit of laughter to an otherwise somber tale, and additionally serve as a vehicle for providing the audience with some subtle hints as to the true nature of Cecily and Bruce's situation. Played by Andy Isaacs, Hodgson is the groundskeeper of the cottage, and radiates kindness and honesty towards the couple. While his accent was a bit hard to place, Isaac was consistent in his portrayal of a man who only wants to do the best job he possibly can. He very clearly cares for not only the safety of his garden, but also that of the people who have hired him. Isaac's Hodgson especially shares this connection with Cecily, whom he works well with to show a genuine friendship and concern that warms the hearts of the audience with its sincerity.
A similar relationship exists between Cecily and Ethel, Hodgson's niece who is hired as the cottage's maid. Ethel, as played by Raffaela Frymark, is especially energetic, and possesses a delightful amount of innocence and youth, perhaps the only character in the show about which this claim can be made. Frymark's use of endlessly happy facial expressions and enthusiastic physical movements mark her Ethel as a girl who enjoys her job tremendously and, much like her uncle, wants to bring her best work to the table. Frymark, despite a slight lack of natural presence and a bit of a quick delivery, gives us a lovable character that brings a smile our face each time she is onstage. Additionally, Dr. Gribble, the country doctor who arrives at the cottage to tend to Bruce, should be noted for Craig's Stouffer's portrayal of a jolly yet extremely knowledgeable man. Stouffer's Gribble is nothing short of a scholar, wise and helpful, and plays a larger role in the mystery's conclusion that one may expect.
Mavis Wilson is Cecily's longtime friend and roommate, and plays a critical role in unraveling the mystery behind Cecily and Bruce's unusually quick marriage. She is portrayed at Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg by Allison States, who does a wonderful job in bringing out the moral compass in Mavis. She has no trouble in playing up the obvious care and concern that Mavis feels for her friend, using a myriad of appropriate facial expressions to convey these emotions quite well. Her character's intelligence is also made clear as she begins to put the pieces of Cecily's strange situation together, and while she could benefit from a bit of an energy boost onstage, States plays a contemplative Mavis who may know more than she lets on.
Rachit Trehan is given the rather complicated task of portraying Nigel Lawrence, the fiance Cecily abandoned who is now left to wonder just where he went wrong. From the start, Trehan's Nigel is sophisticated, intelligent, and suave, a man who has accomplished a great deal in his life but at the cost of his relationship. Trehan often handles himself very well on stage, donning an air of both self-esteem and earnesty that makes Cecily's betrayal all the more difficult for him to accept. He then adapts an entirely believable form of anger and indignance, with a few standout bursts of physical movement that startles the audience with its intensity. That being said, there are times when he occasionally seems a bit stiff in his stage presence. However, Trehan redeems himself later on in the show, bringing more of a realism to his character when he has calmed down, presenting himself as a man who has not let truly let go of his feelings but will attempt to move on for the sake of Cecily. Trehan's Nigel is a complex man, but later becomes straightforward in his quest to discover just who his fiance has left him for, and whether he can be trusted.
This brings us to the two leads of the show, Cecily Harrington and Bruce Lovell. Played by Mary Geraci and Dakota Eschenmann respectively, they provide perhap two outstanding performances that provide a testament to the true nature of community theatre. Mary Geraci portrays a Cecily that is everything the audience would want her to be: a natural stage presence, a dreamer, a girl who wants to see the world but is initially unsure of how to do so. However, she is determined to break free from the cage she considers her engagement to be, and radiates confidence to spare. She is a modern woman despite living in a 1920's setting, sure of who she is and what she wants her life to be. Geraci's Cecily is clever, witty, and assertive, and she does a particularly excellent job in developing her character from smitten to content to suspicious as the play progresses. This is far from an easy task, but Geraci appears to make these transitions with ease. Her talent particularly shines towards the end of the show, as Cecily is faced with a madman and manages to match him wit for wit. She brings out an intelligence that is seen even through her character's fearful yet calm facade, and this is no small feat.
Geraci also shines when paired with Eschenmann's Bruce, and they work together to create an exemplary onstage couple, stealing the show whenever they share the stage. The chemistry between them develops quite naturally as opposed to a forced attraction, and their eventual happiness together almost makes the audience envious of them. Even as Geraci does an impressive job portraying a Cecily that works hard to initially deny her feelings, Eschenmann's Bruce matches her with charm and devotion to spare. However, as the show progress, the couple begins to slip out of the honeymoon phase, and they handle the slow decline from bliss quite well. These moments of tension between them worry the audience, as Bruce has given us a few reasons to grow suspicious of him.
Eschenmann's performance is almost unparalleled by any other in the show. His character was by far the most intense, not to mention the complexity of his role. Eschemann melts hearts with a Bruce that initially channels a kind, sophisticated, and sensitive man that nearly makes the audience fall for him along with Cecily. His gentleman-caller presence seems to thrive on Eschenmann's ability to employ a generous helping of charm, but he purposefully drops the act for just a moment, revealing that his character may have ulterior motives of an unpleasant variety. We are made to be wary of him, but Eschenmann's ideal husband routine almost causes us to forget our worries for just a moment. However, Bruce begins to change throughout the show, displaying Eschenmann's impressive range as his character transitions from lovesick man to angry, paranoid husband. Both attitudes are equally convincing, and each possess a certain realism that captivates the audience.
Eschenmann then continues to amaze, as his mood swings intensify and his insanity reaches the point of no return. He becomes erratic, unreasonable, and simply crazy, and uses a vast array of facial expressions and wonderful physicality that never slipped as the show progressed. It could have been easy for Eschenmann to begin to lose this manic attitude, but he never lets go of his momentum. In fact, he merely builds upon it, using moments of sickening calm to make his later bursts of hysterics all the more frightening. The result of his actions, paired with Cecily's quick thinking, create a show that captivates the audience unlike many others.
LOVE FROM A STRANGER at Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg was one of the only mysteries that has left this reviewer at the edge of her seat. The cast's performances aide the audience in piecing together Agatha Christie's clues, and allow us to become invested in the characters and gripped by anticipation. The thrill of suspense is palpable both on and off the stage, leaving the audience beyond intrigued. LOVE FROM A STRANGER is a feat of excellence, and with any lucky will define Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg as a place of remarkable talent.
Presented by Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg. Next is THE SHADOW BOX. Visit ltmonline.net.