With Halloween right around the corner, its seems natural that the play of choice for Elkhart Civic Theatre should be a newer take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which opened Friday evening in the Bristol Opera House.
Penned by Jeffrey Hatcher, the play’s title is “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” There is no need to define it as a “strange case.” That, within the first few minutes, is obvious.
The illness of Dr. Henry Jekyll is, in this context, self-inflicted. Today we would describe him as suffering from a split personality or DID (dissociative identity disorder), a diagnosis increasingly common in this century (and a popular character twist in current daytime dramas).
In the turn of the century England, however, it was seen as dabbling in the dark arts. That much of the original narrative is still in tact.
What has been changed in the Hatcher formulation is definitely off the path of the 132 film versions, not to mention those on stage or TV. There still is only one Henry Jekyll (Brent Graber) but there are four incarnations of Edward Hyde (Colin Rusel, Carl Wiesinger, Tony Venable and Melissa “Missy” Domiano), each of whom also plays one or more additional roles.
The action begins a year after Jekyll has found his personality-splitting formula and is beginning to realize that it may be getting out of hand. Unlike the traditional narratives, he is not in love with a “good girl,” but instead is consumed with exploring the dichotomy of human nature. When asked if he believes in the soul, he is elusive, answering “Man gives names to things we cannot understand.”
Hyde, instead, is the one whose lover Elizabeth Jelkes (Kaitrin Higbee), here definitely not a society belle, refuses to abandon him even as the brutal side of his nature escalates to include murder. He returns her passion and eventually Hyde — or is it Jekyll? — makes the supreme sacrifice to save her.
Throughout, the four Hyde alters serve as other characters in Jekyll’s life — attorney, valet, physicians, students, a detective, a police inspector and a maid. Each recalls incidents in the twisted scenario that binds J&H, as seen from varying points of view.
The finale is, it seems, inevitable and one that will follow the traditional ending. Don’t be too sure!
Rusel, Hyde 1, also plays Utterson, Jekyll’s attorney and most trusted friend. He establishes a solid relationship with the increasingly tortured scientist and seems the most understanding, declaring “No one is all good or all bad.”
Weisinger delivers a quartet of characters, from Enfield, Utterson’s cousin; to Sir Danvers Carew, egocentric, opinionated chief of the college of surgeons; O.F. Sanderson, a detective hired by Jekyll to check up on Hyde; and a police inspector investigating the increasing number of murders. All are definitely distinct and manage to get all the laughs lurking in the otherwise dark scenario
Venable is Dr. Lanyon, a Scottish colleague who runs afoul of Hyde, while Domiano is quite convincing as Poole, Dr. Jekyll’s valet, and a police surgeon. Both also portray surgical students.
Higbee works hard to make Elizabeth’s devotion to Hyde convincing and, in the end, succeeds in spite of modern attitudes towards abusers.
The four Hydes relieve Graber of the necessity of changing physically from man to monster, but the requirement for delivering extreme emotions is definitely there and he handles it well.
Director Dave Dufour and assistant director Randy Zonker, who also designed the lights, keep the action moving as quickly as possible considering the weight of the dialogue. John Shoup’s set design is, of necessity, dark, with the exception of the double-sided red door which moves frequently and easily to establish locations. In addition to the black/gray/brown color palette of the costumes (couldn’t Elizabeth have had some color in her dress?), it creates an unrelentingly cavernous setting.
Dufour and Garry Cobbum deserve major applause for the immensely effective “sound track” which, according to Dufour, was not supplied with the script but was assembled primarily from recorded music by Phillip Glass. It could not have sustained and supported the scenes and the atmosphere any better if it had been written specifically for this play.
Whether you go for this “split decision” on the familiar tale or not, it still manages to be appropriately frightening.
“DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on S.R. 120 in Bristol. For reservations, call 848-4116 from 1 to 5:50 p.m. weekdays or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org