The Pear christened its new space on 19 September 2015 with the gala opening of The Walls of Jericho, and A Good Reed Review missed it. Although a little late to the party this time, this world premiere run of Diane Tasca’s stage adaptation of Samuel Hopkins Adams’ short story, “Night Bus”, was well-worth waiting for. In this second week of production, the cast members are comfortable in their characters, and the new space is everything one could hope for in an intimate black box theatre.
Tasca’s adaptation is true to the original source material, which first appeared in a 1933 issue of Comopolitan magazine. In transforming the story (which also inspired the Academy Award winning film, It Happened One Night) to the stage, Tasca chose to keep much of the poetic descriptions of the scenes intact by writing various characters as narrators to set the scenes, and to give us insight into what Elspeth and Peter (our young protagonists) are thinking. At first, it’s a little disconcerting to have the leads describe some of their own actions and thoughts as they too, take part in the narration.
The story takes place in April 1933 and follows Elspeth Andrews (Sarah Cook), a young socialite who’s used to getting her way, running away from her overprotective father, Alexander Bruce MacGregor Andrews (Dave Sikula). She takes a bus from Miami to New York, to meet an adventurous aviator of whom her father disapproves. She chooses the bus because she figures her father would be watching the railways, but he wouldn’t think to look for her on a bus.
There she meets Peter Warne (Drew Reitz), a not-so-well-to-do college graduate. Peter is intrigued by, and is somewhat protective of Elspeth. Fortunately for us, their trip is quite eventful as they meet a variety of characters, and end up posing as husband and wife to secure lodging along the way.
At the first stop, a thief runs off with Elspeth’s suitcase. Though Peter tries to run him down, he loses him, and then feels sorry for Elspeth being all alone. He starts to look out for her, though she makes quite a ruckus, and the two of them bicker frequently over just about everything. To remain proper while they share various lodgings on their journey, Peter erects a barrier between their beds using a cord that he pulls from his valise, along with a blanket from the room that he hangs over the cord.
Director, and sound designer, Caroline Clark was given a lot of leeway in staging and in line allocation, though she chose to follow the script rather than reassigning lines elsewhere. She makes effective use of the rest of the ensemble in her staging, including: Keith Larson, Leslie Newport, Stephanie Whigham, and Todd Wright. Each plays a variety of roles, including that of narrator at times when the leads aren’t narrating their own actions.
Reitz and Cook spark and sizzle together as Elspeth and Peter rely on one another more as the story develops. Bickering evolves into mutual concern, admiration, and just a hint of suspicion as the tension builds nicely through most of the play. They both flip easily between narrating their thoughts and acting on them as their characters.
While Reitz works very naturally with Cook, his scene with Sikula isn’t as smooth. Warne is understandably on his guard with Elspeth’s father, but the interaction between the two men seems a little forced in its staging and interpretation.
Reitz interacts with Larson’s Shapley, on the other hand, in a nice give and take. They argue as equals, and each characters’ cunning comes through, Shapley as a sleazy opportunist, Warne as the white knight.
Within the ensemble, Wright stands out in a number of character roles including a crusty bus driver, a farmer, a road pirate, and finally a tourist cabin owner. Each of his characters dons a separate, but distinctive aspect and speech pattern, and he’s very funny. His scenes with Newport playing his wife in particular are a riot.
Whigham has a couple of small character roles, but her primary function is as a narrator who pops in at key moments. She comfortably, and confidently, takes the spotlight and delivers punchy descriptive points off and on throughout the play.
Charles McKeithan’s scenic design is sparse, but very fitting for the story. A small, central platform with several chairs serves as the bus. Aided by Valerie Clear’s lighting design and Clark’s stage direction and sound design, a few additional props are used to transform between terminal, restaurant, and bedroom smoothly under a period-appropriate selection of songs making the changes seem very quick. The songs used for scene changes are from the era, though slightly after the year the story takes place. For instance, “Caravan” wasn’t written until 1936, and “Blue Moon” while closer, was written in 1934.
Clear’s lighting design has more breadth than was possible in the old space, and it’s somewhat nontraditional at times. For the daytime, outdoor scenes, the entire theatre lights up giving a more realistic impression of daylight. The lighting shifts in the moodier settings are more subtle, and are also very effective.
The Walls of Jericho keeps the original intent of a romantic comedy alive and will continue to delight audiences throughout its run. The show only runs for three weeks, so come see this little gem before the trumpet heralds its walls to come down for the last time.
What: The Walls of Jericho
Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View, CA 94043
When: Continues through 4 October 2015, Thursday-Saturday at 8PM, Sunday at 2PM.
See http://www.thepear.org or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.
(Photos courtesy of The Pear)