Panic at Park Square Theatre

June 19, 2011
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Stephen D'Ambrose and Barbara Kingsley in Panic. Photo by Petronella Ytsma.

In Panic (at Park Square Theatre, through July 10), playwright Joseph Goodrich creates a “cozy” mystery: characters are powerful, wealthy, self-assured.  They live postcard-perfect lives.  Henry Lockwood, famous film-director, prepares to open his latest film (a grand success, of course) and is starting work on his newest (a mystery, naturally).  His semi-invalid wife, Emma, suffers nobly from heart disease.  There are stock characters: Alain, the newcomer, fiercely ambitious.  Miriam, Henry’s worshipful secretary.  They inhabit an expense-be-damned Paris hotel suite.  The story is set in the comfortably distant past (the 60s).

Ah, but as is always the case with cozies, but all is not well in this fantasy Paris.  There are secrets.  Nasty ones.  You see, some years earlier, while shooting a film, Henry apparently…

No!  I’ll never reveal it!  You’ll have to strap me into a chair and tickle me with pheasant feathers!

Much praise is due Goodrich for attempting a stage mystery.  The form has been thoroughly co-opted by Hollywood.  Film-makers can use energy-conferring jump cuts.  They can create realistic violence.  Juxtapose multiple story lines.  Playwrights have more limited resources.  They must rely on old-fashioned character development, freely employ red herrings, and describe a lot of off-stage action.  In Panic, Goodrich has hit on a nifty device: the spinning of film scenarios.  This gives what might be static descriptions of action real present tense energy.  Indeed, the writing here is smart and effective.

Goodrich is greatly aided by the production.  Carin Bratlie directs with assurance, not afraid to let the play develop deliberately, giving her characters dignity and quiet power.  Stephen D’Ambrose plays Henry beautifully.  He’s calm, in-charge – but we readily believe that he harbors creepy secrets.  Barbara Kingsley (D’Ambrose’s real-life wife) gives a real tour-de-force performance when her Emma takes charge, going from weakness to genuine strength with thrilling conviction.  As Alain, Garry Geiken is appropriately smarmy and devious – and he really speaks French, or so it seems, adding some nice verisimilitude.  Jen Maren is excellent as the intelligent Miriam, and Heidi Fellner does an excellent turn as Liliane, the young Frenchwoman who…

I’ll never tell you!

Here’s the bottom line: Panic is well-written and beautifully acted.  But it’s old-fashioned, which means the pacing is stately and play veers to the long side (an hour and ten minutes for Act 1, an hour twenty for Act 2).  But if you like mysteries (e.g., the great Agatha Christie), well, this is a production for you.

For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.

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