opening-night review of I'll Be Back Before Midnight
at Spokane Civic Theatre through Feb. 4
What's it like to feel paranoid, to really feel that everyone around is teamed up against you? And what's it like then to witness proof that you might be wrong? Pretty soon you're paranoid about being paranoid.
Action that gets into audience members' heads -- a comedic thriller that strews guffaws and chills among its listeners -- a play that keeps us on the edge of suspense, never sure what we've perceived, what's actually real, what terrible thing might happen next ... that would be a really gripping play.
Peter Colley's *I'll Be Back Before Midnight* isn't that play. And director Wes Deitrick's production doesn't do much of anything to revive this turkey, which should have been left to waddle around the barnyard after its neck had been wrenched, or whatever it is they do to theatrical abominations.
While there are a few bright spots that show up during the abysmal darkness of *Midnight,* the Civic production is mostly tone-deaf -- a collection of misjudged, unscary, just plain ludicrous moments.
This is the kind of script that calls for characters to commit acts of violence and then cower at the thought of ... placing a phone call. It's a dark and stormy night, you see. The curtains are drawn, the windows locked. But somehow -- who knows how? — once, then twice ... really creepy things have come through that window. So naturally, what does our heroine do when unearthly sounds start to emanate from beyond the window? She goes over to the window and draws the curtains.
Yeah, that'll keep 'em out.
*Back Before Midnight,* in its best moments, is involving because it tries to turn tables on us continually: Is the heroine deluded and laughably weak, or can she stand up for herself while maintaining a firm grip on reality?
Jan, after all, is emotionally fragile, and Angie Dierdorff Petro conveys that through crossed arms and slumped shoulders. She's up against the creepy farmer next door (Ron Ford), a bossy and devious sister-in-law, Laura (Heather Swanstrom), and ... can she even trust her own husband (Dave Rideout)?
With all the counter-plotting and paranoia going on, however, the cast resorts to indicating excessively. Petro keeps crossing her arms and slumping her shoulders. As for Rideout, there are ways to convey submissiveness without cowering and lunging away to the far side of the sofa.
Playwright Colley relies so much on characters' self-labeling ("I guess I'm just over-sensitive, and you're not sensitive enough" and "I'm just an insensitive clod") that maybe the cast can be forgiven for over-emphasizing the traits they're trying to project out into the audience.
Ford fares best. After a career in bloody horror movies, he's got the creepy drunken dirty old man act down. His George, whether in overalls or a polka dot tie, fairly slathers over the details of gory crimes and the bodies of the women he holds in contempt. If he's asked to enact bad slasher-film antics later on, it's not his fault.
Deitrick directs to set up suspense pretty well, though in truth neither of the late-in-Act-One payoffs pays off very well at all. (In terms of suspense, anyway. Maybe in terms of humor.)
There's a bit of stage business early on between the husband and the weirdo farmer that practically gives away the plot. And Colley's script, for all its reputed meticulousness about staging the special effects just so, tends to point fingers at the source of the upcoming screams so that -- when the frightful stuff does finally appear -- all the scariness has drained away.
There are episodes of *Scooby Doo* scarier than Colley's play.
Comic thrillers like *Back Before Midnight* have a basic problem: They want us to deride characters who are laughably beneath us -- and then, in the next supposedly terrifying moment, they're trying to get us to identify closely with the poor beleaguered victim. Which end of the telescope are we looking through? Either way, we're not getting goose bumps. We're just getting the giggles.
Hey, I know I've been rough on shows like *The Fantasticks* and *Mamma Mia!* of late.
But this is not a case of me overdosing on my cranky pills. The Civic's *Midnight* reaches some kind of local theatrical nadir.
But then what about all the people who liked this show? (At the curtain call on opening night, much of the audience stood to applaud.) What if I'm wrong? What if it's all a plot to get me to think that *Midnight* is a bad play when actually it's very good?
Maybe I'm losing my mind. I'm all alone in this office, after all, typing my review, and ... Maybe the audience was planted, and the actors were just pretending to be bad. Maybe I'm hallucinating, and I only think that *Midnight* is a bad play.
Nah, just kidding. It really is bad.
For a revised version of this review -- and for comments on Heather Swanstrom's performance as Laura, Charles Mix's sound design, Maureen Purdy's lights, Peter Hardie's set, and more on what all the opening-night laughter was about — pick up a copy of the Jan. 19 *Inlander.*