By Robert H. Miller
What a fine storyteller was Robert Louis Stevenson!
As a youngster, I lapped up his tales of adventure, such as “Treasure Island” “Kidnapped” “The Black Arrow” and of course “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” besides his collection of essays, “Virginibus Puerisque.”
Over the years, there have been many adaptations of “Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde,” several movie and television productions, even a Broadway musical. Along comes David Edgar, the brilliant and prolific British playwright, to give us a new look at R.L. Stevenson’s classic psychological thriller. His adaptation, published in 1986, was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Barbican Theatre in London in 1991.
“Try as we might to convince (the audience) that they were seeing a battle inside a single soul, what was actually in front of them were two men in Victorian clothes having an argument in a laboratory.” So Edgar wrote in his introduction to the script, when revised that same year for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre with the split personalities being portrayed by one actor. And such is the case in the upcoming OSF production in the Bowmer Theatre, with James Newcomb taking on the difficult and daunting double role, and this without prosthetics or special effects. It opens July 29.
The action of the play occurs in London and Dorset and on a train in between, and includes a fog sequence. Interestingly, another Edgar play, “Entertaining Strangers,” presented earlier this year by Southern Oregon University, was set in and around Dorchester, the county capital of Dorset.
Mindful that the play should not merely be about the world of men, Edgar cleverly introduces a feminine factor into the eerie male equation. He adds characters, notably Katherine Urquart (Vilma Silva), Dr. Jeykll’s sister who is indeed the epitome of the complete and independent New Woman. Then there are her two young children, Charles (Jeris Schaefer) and Lucy (Kelly Curran), and her parlor maid, Annie Loder (Laura Morache) who is wronged by Jeykll and Hyde but not destroyed.
Other characters include Gabriel John Utterson (Richard Farrell), a lawyer; his cousin, Richard Enfield (Jeff Cummings); Poole (Robert Sicular) and Dr. Jekyll’s butler. David Kelly plays both Dr. Hastie Lanyon, a friend of Jekyll’s, and Sir Danvers Carew, a member of parliament who has an unfortunate encounter with Mr. Hyde.
Dr. Jeykll’s father, dead two years, had been conducting experiments into the human psyche, but had abandoned them for fear he might “find the soul, or, worse, open up the door marked soul and find an empty room.” The son has no such qualms and scours his father’s library for notes and is led to confront the darkest aspects of his humanity, a scarifying murderous brute in the person of Mr. Hyde.
Penny Metropulos, the director, in her notes on Demons and Darkness, says she continues to ask herself: “Who is the Hyde within each of us? If there were no love to protect us, what might release him?” She further asks us to leave any preconceptions we have about the play at the door as we enter the world of David Edgar’s play. It will not be one of blood and thunder. For me, it will be hard to do, when Fredric March’s riveting interpretation in the 1932 movie, for which he earned an Oscar, is so firmly embedded in the memory of a then 12 -year-old boy.