Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Allison Cain. Photo courtesy of WildClaw Theatre Company.
By Bec Willett
World creation has always been important in engaging audiences in stories, particularly those presented in more fantastical genres. How would it affect our interpretation of the story if we were never quite able to believe that in Harry’s world Voldemort existed? Or that Hogwarts was real? Often, the most overwhelming audience responses come from stories where the certainty of the world’s existence cannot be doubted. While the design of WildClaw’s world premiere production of Jennifer Rumberger’s A NIGHT IN ALACHUA COUNTY’s leaves no doubt of this world’s existence, at times the performances and direction do.
John Ross Wilson’s set is a place ripe for sinister events to occur. In a script that confronts the demons of the past in a family of women, the role the Florida swampland locale plays is an important one. Wilson’s design more than fits the bill: saccharine deer figurines, half-dead vines strewn limply across a dilapidated trailer, and tiled floor emerging from the muddy carpet, all covered in a patina of filth. Accompanied by the haunting sounds of Sarah D. Espinoza and the mysterious shadows of David Goodman-Edberg, this trifecta of designers shows us exactly what technical expertise can do and how vital it is in creating the world of the play. There’s no denying the script’s claim that “All the monsters come outta here.”
Christopher M. Walsh’s direction is divided between striking choices that mold the world of the play, and some less considered ones that undermine it. The first moment is one of mystery: we see little but back-lit movement spliced through a wooden fence accompanied by heavy breathing. It tells us exactly what to expect: an eerie story of half-truths and mortality. Crystal (Allison Cain) emerges dressed in cargo shorts and a sleeveless shirt, a character that could easily have been portrayed as a stereotype but was not. Cain’s performance, along with Moira Begale’s fizzy Sally and Mandy Walsh’s brash Martha, epitomize what it is to convincingly embody iconic character types with groundedness, humor, and intention. Unfortunately, Kristina D’Agostino’s Violet was less consistent in the emotional truth of her performance which, in addition to somewhat slowing the the pacing of Rumberger’s writing, made her fear – and thus ours – more difficult to reach.
There were multiple times in this production when we were directed to acknowledge the fact that we are in a theater. Some of these instances were highly effective, offering a humorous commentary on the conventions of the horror genre. However, there were also times when the world was undermined at important moments of tension – times when our belief in what is at stake is of utmost importance. One frequent example occurred when the script called for characters to look out into the distance as they waited in suspense for the terrible unseen to happen upon them. In these instances, rather than use the scenic design provided, the actors focus was directed outwards, towards undressed doorways, blank walls, and stage lights of the theater. In doing so, our attention was also drawn out of the fictional world and back into the theater, quelling the sense of suspense that could have been so powerful in these moments.
As more than one audience member commented after the show, this was a fun night. Some of the choices made in this production of of A NIGHT IN ALACHUA COUNTY may not have always captured the intricacies of the world required for a truly terrifying experience, but as a whole there were still gasps and laughs aplenty.
A NIGHT IN ALACHUA COUNTY runs till October 7th. For more information visit wildclawtheatre.com.