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A venture into madness

Playmakers trade farce fare for psychological thriller

Playmakers trade farce fare for psychological thriller

March 28, 2002|BY KEVIN CLAPP

The bell is ringing neither loud nor long enough for Jeff Wine's liking, leading to a quick interruption of the scene unfolding in front of him.

Later, four actors and the director, clad in jeans, red T-shirt and ball cap, will hop onto the Victorian living room set and spend serious time discussing the quantity of flatware on a serving tray brought onto the set. Are two plates enough? Three?

It's enough to propel one into madness, as if "Angel Street" needed the help.

Because on "Angel Street," descending into delirium requires little more than a missing portrait, a sidelong stare or a tart rebuke.

In a departure from frothier fare such as "The Wizard of Oz" and "It Runs in the Family," Potomac Playmakers take a walk on the darker side in "Angel Street," debuting Friday, April 5.

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The psychological thriller is providing the five-person cast and first-time director an opportunity to stretch in ways breezier projects don't.

"Each has a difficulty all to themselves. With farces it's usually bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, the timing, the pace. This one is more controlled, the mood is completely different and you do have to build with it," says Eric Hurd, cold, calculating Jack Manningham in the production. "Farces are usually more frenetic. This is quiet, calm, cool, with an occasional jump when the audience least expects it."

Entering rehearsals for "Angel Street" as the Playmakers' last show - the British farce "It Runs in the Family" - closed, Wine embraces his first foray into direction. Some of the requirements, like searching for the perfect piece of furniture to complete the set, can be taxing.

"I'll wake up at three in the morning sometimes and think of things for the show," the 32-year-old says. "It's constantly on your mind, even little things."

Working against the cast is the decided lack of traditional trappings of a thriller. With no gunplay, bloodshed or physical violence, it is incumbent on the actors to project - in tone and expression - the mounting psychological tension.

As rehearsal gears up on a Sunday evening, Hurd and Heather Cameron as Jack's wife, Bella, troll the boards of The Women's Club auditorium stage. He is the picture of icy precision, a cold detachment etched even onto words of encouragement for his wife, who has battled psychological demons in their Victorian home.

Her compassion for the plight of servants is quashed by Jack's rigid upholding of the caste system within their home.

Their exchange is subtle, playing out as a butting of wills, but Bella's acquiescence makes clear the control Jack maintains over her. For now.

As Bella, Cameron, 32, is enjoying the chance to bring a dramatic character to life, particularly one with see-saws of emotion that break across the spectrum of possibilities.

"My character goes from giddily happy to terrified to vengeful. It's really a compelling story I hope to be able to tell fairly well for the audience," she says. "I think this is more difficult (than comedy), but also more rewarding to me. It provides more of a challenge to be a more believable actor."

For Hurd, a 10-year veteran of the Playmakers, the challenge is in getting down with his bad self in a role unlike most others he has the chance to inhabit.

"Normally I get stuck as the straight man or the hero," the 29-year-old says. As the villain, "you get to be free, you really get to let loose and be very nasty, more than you get to be in real life."

Offered the job last summer on the eve of the theater group's 76th season, Wine quickly rented the Academy Award-winning film version of Patrick Hamilton's play, though he and Hurd say there are just cursory similarities between the two.

Pleased with how the show seems to be coming together, he says he was attracted to the play's harder edge and hopes the audience responds in kind.

"I'd like them to leave maybe with a question in their heads about the very last scene. I'd like them to leave with their breath taken away," Wine says. "We do a lot of farces and musicals; dramas are scarce in community theater. I want them to leave thinking 'they can do drama here, let's see more of this.'"

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