Theatre Guild Valdosta creates a witty and thought-provoking evening with the latest production, “Cliffhanger.”
Director Brenda Brunston develops a nice rhythm of laughs, suspense and ethical dilemmas. During a heated argument, philosophy professor Henry Lowethal strikes his domineering college department head a vicious blow on her head. While Henry plans to immediately report his crime in a what-would-Socrates-do manner, wife Polly confronts him with the more relative argument of why should he destroy his life and hers for ending the life of the bitter department head? Why should Henry lose everything when he can get away with everything?
While the play will have people weighing the ethical conundrums, audiences will also find many funny moments and twists that may keep audiences guessing until the show’s conclusion.
As director, Brenda Brunston knows when to snap the pacing to a gallop but also knows when to rein it in so the audience has time to soak up a plot development or philosophical conundrum.
Brunston also worked closely with scene designer Grant Brown and lighting designer Josh Robertson. Brown has designed a set that feels like a home from the 1970s and allows for an interesting off-kilter “double screen” effect where the audience can watch the drama unfold in the set’s living area while also seeing the “off-stage” developments in the pantry. Robertson’s lighting deepens to crimson in the show’s violent moments; there are elements of comedy throughout this show, but the lighting reminds audiences of the red-hot rage that can unhinge not only a sense of humor but even the most rational of minds.
Brunston has selected a wonderful cast, an intimate group of performers who hit all the right notes.
Diane Brunston is merciless as the arrogant department head Edith Wilshire. Though only on stage briefly in the show’s first act, Diane Brunston dominates her scene as easily as Wilshire must dominate her college department and its professors. She quickly creates an indelible impression and a memorable character with a crosshatching of bold and textured strokes.
Guild newcomer Quentin McKennon has a natural approach as police Lt. DeVito. Some actors may have felt compelled to play a police detective as a hard-boiled stereotype. McKennon chooses to play him as a human being always attuned to his investigation. It’s a great choice and what could have been a stock character becomes a memorable performance. Hopefully, McKinnon will return for more Guild roles in the future.
Sommers Coleman makes a bold leap from the Guild’s Gingerbread Players children’s productions to the adult fare of the Guild. Coleman gives a raw, manic, yet always nuanced, performance as the emotionally stunted and calculating college student Melvin McCullen. A break-out role and a successful transition from Gingerbread Players to Main Stage productions.
Andrew Thomas and Patti Cook are splendid as the Lowenthals. Audiences should appreciate the deftness of their performances during the show, but for many, this appreciation will deepen upon reflection. Essentially, Thomas and Cook are charged with being on stage constantly throughout the show’s run. They make dual philosophical theories both understandable and entertaining, while keeping the comic timing to deliver laugh-out-loud witticisms sprinkled throughout their ethical debates. They also serve as the accelerators when the pace needs quickening and the brakes to allow a moment to settle on a scene. Bravo to Thomas and Cook!
While the plot is suspenseful, there should be no suspense on whether or not one should see this show. Theatre Guild Valdosta’s “Cliffhanger” is superb and must-see theatre.
This review is based on Wednesday night’s dress-rehearsal performance.
Theatre Guild Valdosta’s production of playwright James Yaffe’s “Cliffhanger” continues 7:30 p.m., May 16-18, The Dosta Playhouse, 122 N. Ashley St. More information: Call (229) 24-STAGE; or visit www.theatreguildvaldosta.com