|Gary Romans (Dr. Norton), Aje Summerly (Gin Hester), and Marty Wimborne (Leonard Scrubbs)|
By Tina Arth
Twilight Theater Company is celebrating Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, Samhain, etc. with a rarely performed bit of stagecraft, Tim Kelly’s Terror By Gaslight. While actual terror is in short supply, the show provides a few shockers and a lot of fun – perfect indoor fare for a dark and stormy night. Director Doug Jacobs and his cast and crew keep the audience guessing, laughing, and occasionally flinching for two acts that seem to fly by.
The tale is set in 19th century Philadelphia, where the esteemed Dr. Cyrus Norton is assembling a museum of body parts to help medical students learn anatomy. The only legal cadavers are the bodies of hanged criminals, but the supply is inadequate and many (in particular, Dr. Norton) have turned to grave robbing as a source of fresh specimens. Local ne’er do wells Gin Hester and Leonard Scrubbs eke out a living by selling bodies newly harvested from Philadelphia graveyards, but the families of the involuntarily disinterred and the local police make this a hazardous career path, so Norton advises his suppliers to range farther afield in their hunting. Cyrus shares his home (the site of his macabre museum) with his unconventional daughter Marilyn (who, in defiance of societal norms, aspires to training as a doctor) and his oh-so-conventional sister Constance (who longs to see that Marilyn marries well and abandons her feminist fantasies). Add in a maid, a nosy detective, a jilted barmaid, several other doctors, and a very cranky widow and the pieces are in place for an evening of dark drawing-room comedy with perpetrators and victims (living and otherwise) entering and exiting, peering through windows, and generally keeping the audience guessing until the very end.
Gary Romans plays Dr. Cyrus Norton as a thoroughly likeable (if somewhat pretentious and occasionally murderous) old fellow, dedicated to making Philadelphia a world-class center for anatomical education (there are some funny lines about the incompetent hacks at Harvard). Katherine Kyte (“Marilyn”) is utterly charming – her huge smile and sparkling eyes draw audience attention while initially revealing virtually nothing about the woman beneath the surface. Grave robbers Marty Winborne (“Scrubbs”) and Aje Summerly (“Gin Hester”) demand our attention with each unusual entrance. Winborne inexplicably shouts “Scrubbs” each time he appears; his slouching posture and devious mien immediately telegraph his character’s menacing persona. Summerly’s inebriated and wobbly gait combines with her high-pitched and whiny rambling to do the opposite – she sells herself until the crucial scene as a pathetic and ineffectual drunk.
The show is generally well cast – special mention is due Debra Blake (“Constance”), Rachel Thomas (impossibly cute as the maid), and Rob Kimmelman (as William Dover, Marilyn’s suitor/fellow student). The dialogue is occasionally a bit didactic, but the actors do a great job of bringing life to even the most openly expository lines.
Robin Pair’s lighting design and Ilana Watson’s sound design work beautifully, providing special effects on cue. Costumes, provided by Helen’s Pacific Costumers, are integral to creating the proper 19th century ambience – they are detailed and feel quite faithful to both the era and social classes represented in the story.
Terror By Gaslight is not the most challenging play you’ll see this year, but it’s a lot of fun, fits well with the spirit of the season, and will serve as a great way to mark the beginning of a long spate of winter-themed productions. It’s probably not appropriate for most young children, but the violence is handled with some discretion and should be fine for pre-teens.
Twilight Theater Company’s production of Terror By Gaslight is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Saturday, November 5th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday.