Monday, October 29, 2007

Desperate Hours

Yesterday afternoon I went to see Desperate Hours at Lansing Civic Player. It was an intriguing show--one which I'd hate to put on any sort of simple label of "good" or "bad." Rather, I'm glad I went because it gave me a lot to think about.

There were some wonderful moments in it and I enjoyed the choices that they made with the lights. They were extremely well-executed and helped to create a particular film noir mood. They made use of spots that flashed on small spots such as a telephone. They also did fades that purposefully left characters speaking in darkness. It's not a technique you often see in this space.

Speaking of space, it was also impressive the use that the production made of the space that they have. Hannah Community Center's stage is cavernous and is often a disadvantage to the groups that perform there as actors must stride across sets that are way too big for what is needed. However, Director Michael Hays and Set Designer James Miner used the whole stage so that there was no need for lengthy scene changes. A little over half the stage was the two-level home that the escaped convicts invaded. The other part of the stage was the police station that later easily converted into the next-door attic. Lights were used to focus attention and actors frequently froze on stage while action was taking place in the other room--or they exited quickly during the lights down. It was a decision that kept up the pace of the show and helped contribute to the tension.

Speaking of pace, the first half was extremely long. Not having read the script, I assume that they did a break after the first two acts. It might have been better to find a place in the middle of Act 2 to hold the intermission as the first half was as long as some complete productions. Also, the actors seemed far more committed to and invested in the second half of the play than the first. It might have helped if that had been the longer half.

The play also definitely had dated elements to it. It's set in 1955 and the family felt like something out of a Leave it to Beaver episode. It was especially painful to see how the women were written, directed, and performed. The mother was little more than the stereotyped woman of the 50s--a woman that rarely existed outside of the pages of women's magazines and afternoon television shows.

While I often found myself asking what I would do if I were in the father's shoes (which was mostly what the playwright wanted you to ask), I never wondered what I would do in the mother's shoes despite that being the more obvious connection for me, a mother. But she wasn't someone I could relate to. She was given a role that was entirely passive--a role I couldn't see either of my grandmothers, both of whom were mothers in the 50s, being. She seemed like a woman who during childbirth would tell her husband that the pain was too bad and would he please have the baby for her. I mean, come on, no woman who has gone through childbirth would be so helpless and passionless when her children are in danger.

However, that is exactly the woman that the playwright created. Joseph Hayes gave the character only one moment to shine--the rest of the time she was merely whiny and incompetent (except her cooking, she was described as an excellent cook). Nor was it helped by the direction that had her wringing her hands when the elderly garbage man was threatened. Rather than have her appeal directly to the murderers, she paced back and forth, letting loose a long ramble of pleadings that were directed at the carpet. She was upset, but was making no real effort to convince the convicts to leave the old man alone.

Nor is the daughter anything but the stereotype of a redhead. The script gives her very little to work with. The one scene where she might have been afforded opportunity to stretch fell flat. There was little to no connection between her and her boyfriend and the scene lacked any sort of tension whatsoever.

The men in this production fared far better--in large part because they had more to work with. It was through them that the psychological drama of the story played out. They became the tableau on which the playwright painted portraits of evil and hope, nobility and despair.

Mark Boyd played the father, Dan Hilliard, as the archetype 50s father who was placed into an unbearable situation. It's immediately evident that he loves his family. His actions are never empty machoism or posing; rather they are the acts of a genuinely desperate man who wants his family to live. He was a hero not in the mold of a James Bond, but in the fashion of MacDuff in the Scottish play for whom the threat to his family is what motivates him to move against king and then to murder when his that family is harmed. Boyd was especially delightful to watch in the scene where his son's schoolteacher shows up at the house to find out why he wasn't in school (another dated element of the show). His antics were one of the few moments of comic relief in the drama.

Joe Dickson also did quite well as the evil Glenn Griffin. He was callous, unpredictable, and appropriately menacing. He was most creepy when he showed how amused he was at the suffering he was causing. I didn't care much for the speeches that he delivered to the audience, but neither was I particularly bothered by them. The speeches themselves didn't seem to really support it, but it didn't break the mood or the scene either.

Kevin Knights makes an excellent bully. He provided the muscle and the intimidation factor.

I find myself falling into the trap that I often got caught by when I was first writing reviews--that of trying to mention everyone and everything. That usually makes for pretty dull reading and that's probably exactly what is happening to this blog entry that just started out as a discussion of some of the things that intrigued me in the show. It wasn't meant to turn into anything comprehensive or into a review.

So instead, let me just wrap up by saying I also thought the police scenes were interesting, especially as the audience was able to see the internal struggles of the officers played by Jack Dowd and Rick Dethlefsen. Dethlefsen early on seemed a little too unconcerned, but much of that was scripted. Those scenes were also adjusting to a last-minute cast change, something that can often throw things off. However, they managed to maintain the tension and still do an excellent job.

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