Film noir comes to the stage in ‘Laura’
Theater review by Elizabeth Warnimont
Special to The Herald
The Role Players Ensemble of Danville continues its 2011-12 season this month with “Laura,” the classic 1940s story of a career woman/femme fatale who winds up being the prime suspect in her own murder.
Vera Caspary conceived “Laura” as a play long before it evolved into the 1944 hit movie starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Vincent Price. It wasn’t until after the film’s phenomenal success, though, that Caspary collaborated with fellow playwright George Sklar on the final stage version, which was published in 1946.
Recognizing the continued popularity of the film, Role Players artistic director Eric Fraisher Hayes directs the play with a mind to carry the film noir style from the movie back to the stage. “The expressionism found in film noir (originally) borrowed from the expressionism found in theater,” he explains. “With this stage production, we attempt to collect on its interest.”
Eden Neuendorf is Laura, the subject of a portrait hanging over the mantle in her living room in the opening scene, as Detective McPherson (Khary Moye) ponders the facts surrounding her gruesome murder. Laura’s housekeeper Bessie had been the first to discover the body, its face partially obliterated by an apparent shotgun blast.
As McPherson sits contemplating in the dark, a young man sneaks into the room, obviously unaware of the detective’s presence. McPherson switches on the lamp, and the first of a string of Laura’s admirers attempts to explain away any possible connection to the crime.
Craig Eychner is Laura’s fiancé Shelby. Shelby’s character appears rather flat and slow to develop, as do the others in the first act — which is exactly how the play is scripted. Critics of the 1940s film liked the way the characters were initially cast as being relatively dull, making the revelations down the road all the more surprising.
The first plot twist occurs when Det. McPherson realizes that the victim bears a suspicious resemblance to a model who may have been staying at Laura’s place while she was out of town. From there, of course, the plot only gets thicker.
Shelby is found to be something of a philanderer. The landlady’s son had a serious crush on Laura and was infuriated that she wouldn’t take him seriously. The man who appeared to be Laura’s mentor is revealed to be her former lover, who was dismayed at Laura’s decision to marry a man he deemed far less worthy than himself.
Neuendorf does a beautiful job portraying the multi-faceted Laura. She is, in turn, convincingly coy, broken, incensed and endearing. Eychner is equally strong as Shelby, appropriately dull at the outset but developing a subtle depth as more and more hidden truths come to light. Tom Reilly commands the appearance of the arrogant, aristocratic gentleman friend, though his calm manner seems somewhat forced, his movements and speech practiced but plodding.
Moye appears confident in the role of the detective. He masters the cool demeanor and quiet, even mannerisms of a seasoned cop. He may be playing it a bit too cool, though, when it comes to his supposed obsession with the victim — that element doesn’t really come across.
Supporting cast member Ben Oldham, a high school junior at Oakland School for the Arts, is promising as Danny, the young man with a crush; and Loralee Windsor is delightful to watch as Bessie, a kind and hardworking soul with just a touch of fussiness, fitting to the role of the aging housekeeper. The actors all play off each other well, conveying a sense of natural interaction overall.
Strengths in the Role Players production are abundant. The set is thoughtfully and exactingly constructed. The sound is perfect — the actors’ voices come across beautifully, apparently without the aid of personal mics.
If there was one general weakness on opening night last Friday, it was one that is perhaps typical of any opening night: the actors didn’t seem quite at ease in their roles. Considering the near-sellout crowd, it seems a safe bet that confidence will build, and subsequent performances should flow more smoothly.
“Laura” the play is not a reincarnation of the movie. Come expecting something fresh, and you won’t be disappointed. For anyone who loves a good mystery, this play might be just the thing.
If You Go
“Laura” continues at the Village Theatre in Danville through Feb. 4. Tickets are $18 to $26 and are available by calling 925-314-3400 or at villagetheatreshows.com.
Elizabeth Warnimont holds a BA in Germanic language and literature from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She is currently a substitute teacher for the Benicia Unified School District.