Regional Reviews: Chicago
Night of the Hunter
One of the greatest successes of Tucker's adaptation is that it successfully captures how thoroughly trapped Willa Harper finds herself by the legacy of her husband's actions, by the greed and judgement of the residents of her small West Virginia town, and by the Great Depression itself.
In this, Tucker is well-supported by Jeremiah Barr's scenic design. The back wall of the set resembles worn slats of wood. The single entrance on to the stage's main platform is a tall, irregular outline suggesting a hulking human figure that is persistently unnerving in the gloom of scene changes and when the light is low.
A ramp at stage right and stairs at stage left allow easy exits, and furniture stashed below the main platform facilitates relatively speedy transformations of the ground level into a prison cell, the children's bedrooms, and the confectionary where Willa works. Liz Cooper's lighting design also contributes to the eerie atmosphere with tight pools of light focused on the action and an unhealthy glow seeping through the gaps in the set.
Rachel S. Parent's costume design is subtle, but captures both the period and the gradations of class well. In addition, Parent's costumes for John and Pearl do well in "selling" the two adult actors as children.
The cast is anchored by the performances of Bryan Breau (Preacher) and Jacqui Touchet (John). The dynamic between the two is fascinating, as Touchet vibrates with steely misery and Breau shifts from dazzling charm to brutality with lightning speed. Touchet's performance is especially remarkable in how well it accomplishes the task of believably portraying a child who has been somewhat uncannily matured by all he has endured, yet remains a child.
Mary Margaret McCormack deserves similar praise for her performance as Pearl. The intent is somewhat different for this much younger character, and yet McCormack is believably maddening and endearing in equal parts.
As Willa, Kendal Romero lends dimension to a character that could easily fall flat. In particular, Romero shines in the harrowing wedding night scene as Preacher drops his charming mask and initiates a new, infinitely crueler psychological game.
Tucker herself is good in her on-stage role as Miz Cooper. Although her position as narrator is somewhat jarring early on, her performance ultimately helps the play to jell, and when her identity within the story is revealed, she is a welcome, iron-willed presence.
In the supporting cast, Sheila Willis is effectively bossy and infuriating as Icey pushes Willa to save herself and her children by succumbing to Preacher's charms. She and Sean Harklerode, who plays Walt, Icey's husband and Willa's boss, have engaging chemistry.
Alex Albrecht (Ben and various roles) and Simmery Branch (Ruby and Miz Cunningham) do well in establishing distinct characters and fleshing out the general setting and mood of specific scenes. As Uncle Birdie, Rich Cotovsky captures the hapless, eccentric character who the audience hopes will somehow save the children, even as we know that he will not.
Night of the Hunter runs through December 3, 2023, at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.citylit.org or call 773-293-3682.