Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre takes on ‘Rebecca’

Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre takes on ‘Rebecca’

Erin Sheehan and Jeff Church
Erin Sheehan plays Mrs. de Winter and Jeff Church is Max de Winter in “Rebecca,” playing at 2nd Story Theatre through July 29. Photo by Richard Dionne.
Erin Sheehan and Jeff Church
Erin Sheehan plays Mrs. de Winter and Jeff Church is Max de Winter in “Rebecca,” playing at 2nd Story Theatre through July 29. Photo by Richard Dionne.

There’s a definite sense of mystery in the air around 2nd Story Theatre, an on-stage aura that is both foreboding and alluring.

This state of affairs has been brought forth by the current production of “Rebecca,” Daphne du Maurier’s classic story of romantic suspense. The 1938 novel is a perennial favorite, having been made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock (the movie won the Oscar for best picture in 1940) and reportedly a musical version will hit Broadway in the fall. The production at 2nd Story is an adaptation that focuses not only on the story itself but on the intense psychological implications of the mysterious tale, especially as unforeseen events determine the fate of our heroine, the second Mrs. De Winter.

As our story begins she is a newlywed and having been swept up in a whirlwind romance with Maxim De Winter she now finds herself with him at his ancestral home, the grand but imposing estate of Manderly, where, along its rough and rocky shore, all sorts of storm clouds, both literal and figurative, loom and mass to threaten her budding and longed for “happily ever after” nuptial life. The mood created by all this gothic romance is infectious and is even starting to influence the way I write about the play.

To heighten the audience’s enjoyment of this gathering emotional storm of a show, director Mark Peckham has assembled a crackerjack ensemble of designers to not only set the mood but to create a lush and romantic sensory experience. The set design by Trevor Elliott is all eerie and elaborate elegance and the costumes by Ron Cesario are gorgeous and time period-appropriate right down to the last stitch.

This attention to detail is always a given at 2nd Story; what’s new here is the sumptuous sound and music effects by Terrence Shea, which add considerable reverberation to the emotional score of the play and the use of lighting and projections, also designed by Mr. Elliot, which add an almost dreamlike state to these surroundings. The effect is both cinematic and poetic, as these visuals create a sense of the stunning and stormy landscape surrounding Manderly as well as underscoring the intense emotional undercurrents at play — the brewing psychological tempests that are harrowing our heroine’s happiness.

Full disclosure rules dictate that I reveal that your critical author plays a small role in “Rebecca,” flitting about the periphery of the drawing room as a bit of comic exposition. But the real strength of this show lies with the 2nd Story stalwarts who form the core of this ensemble as well as with the masterful direction of Mark Peckham, who, quietly but inexorably, pulls no punches in his quest to make sure that this play delivers the requisite emotional wallop.

If you have attended 2nd Story regularly, then you’re familiar with Mr. Peckham’s work, as he’s directed the productions of “Nuts,” “Kimberly Akimbo” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the theater. Mr. Peckham is a gregarious, gentle and generous director and as an actor I can say that he’s a joy to work for. In rehearsal we’d run and rerun the show over and over and as he honed “Rebecca” down to its absolute essence. With each run-through I was ever reminded of the story of whittler who would create an object d’art simply by carving away from the log whatever didn’t look like said object d’art.

“I’m not buying it but it’s not because you’re not selling it,” Mark cajoles an actor as he makes an unjustified move on stage. Throughout the rehearsal process Mark is ever quick to say “Please don’t ask me for my permission to do something new on stage — just do it!” Try anything you like in rehearsal and he’ll watch and then tighten, correct or whittle down as needed. Mr. Peckham is adept at providing actors nudges and signposts to point us toward the right way to move as regards both action and intention.

“What does this new information you’ve just received mean to you? You gotta show something to convey that meaning. What we need to see is a moment of realization,” he tells an actress in rehearsal regarding a piece of dialogue that proves to be important to the character’s inner life and the audience’s collective understanding.

Jeff Church as Max

The talented young actor and East Providence native Jeff Church has been a presence on the 2nd Story stage in a variety of roles these past two seasons, perhaps most notably as a racist baseball player in “Take Me Out.” Here, he’s Maxim de Winter and I asked him, not altogether seriously, if he felt any pressure taking on a role that Laurence Olivier played in an Oscar-winning movie.

“It’s pretty intimidating,” said Jeff. “However I will say that in ‘Olivier on Acting’ he discusses his disappointment with his performance in the movie. Olivier said he couldn’t find the ‘reality’ of the part. I suppose the challenge with doing such a psychological drama like ‘Rebecca’ has to do with luring the audience into an acceptance of the extraordinary circumstances of the story as truth. The common denominator is that all of the action of the play is directly related to the many different memories all of the characters have to a single individual. It’s very hard trying to balance reaction that is directly related to memory. No one wants to see an actor recollect for 10 minutes let alone an entire play. The difficulty is in trying to use memory toward an active means, a means of furthering the story itself, not just the character’s opinions and attitudes.”

As so much of “Rebecca” depends on this subtext — the secret and significant events that occur either offstage or before the play begins — I asked Jeff if that was an obstacle to what he does on stage. “The revealing of information is paramount in acting,” he said, adding that, especially in a psychological thriller, “being privy to all the background circumstances is not a hindrance to the actor but his greatest tool.”

Jeff is well-matched by the always winning and vivacious presence of Erin Sheehan as his new wife, referred to only as the second Mrs. De Winter. The Barrington resident has graced the stage at 2nd Story for several years now, having last been seen as Beth in “Little Women.” One of the joys of this show is watching the growth and transformation of Erin in the role as she evolves from little, lost waif to strong, take-charge woman. I asked her about the challenges she faces as the eye of this dramatic hurricane.

“The biggest challenges I faced was the emotional highs and lows my character goes through in a matter of minutes —that and the seven costume changes,” she said. “The goal is to stay connected and grounded and the rest will happen.”

It’s exciting and thrilling to see a literary classic like “Rebecca” take to the 2nd Story stage, she said. “It’s like reading a favorite romance novel with a touch of mystery on the beach-not bad for some summer fun.”

On-stage wedding

Apart from the play Erin will soon have her own “happily ever after” moment. In September she’ll marry Trevor Elliott, right on the 2nd Story stage. “Not only do I get to do what I love at a place I love, I met the love of my life there, too. Not bad for one little theater in Warren,” she said.

But meanwhile back at Manderly and 2nd Story, we’re all continuing in our task: trying to tell the story of “Rebecca” clearly and directly, but in such a manner wherein the mystery manifests itself, subtly but palpably, as a series of little earth-shaking explosions.

WHERE: 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St., Warren
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays (no evening performance July 22), 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sunday, July 22; through July 29
COST: $25 general, $20 for patrons under 21
MORE INFO: 401/247-4200, [email protected]; www.2ndstorytheatre.com