By Shirley Jackson.
Adapted and directed by Paul Edwards.
At City Lit Theatre, Chicago.
The sundial’s inscription reads: “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?”
Confusing, conflicted and complex mystery thriller misfires.
City Lit Theatre has mounted another world premiere of another Shirley Jackson novel, The Sundial adapted for the stage and directed by Paul Edwards. Billed as a mystery thriller and a darkly Gothic gem, The Sundial is a disaster of a play! According to the press notes, this work is suppose to be a “philosophical and frightening ghost story set in a haunted mansion.” However, the play I saw was a mixture of Gothic eerie family conflict with stupid silliness disguised as humor with hints of a mystery which was never solved and evolves into an doomsday eventually. Nothing works here.
The set (designed by Charles C. Palia, Jr.) doesn’t convey the walled mansion nor does the sound and lighting (by Paul Edwards) add the necessary eerie atmosphere for a mystery. The acting style is another mixed bag of over acting, screaming, juvenile tantrums and silly comic styles including a drag scene. The use of multiple narrators only confused this hybred work that couldn’t make its mind up if it was a comedy or a mystery or a ghost story. It ended up a difficult to follow family melodrama with a group of cliche-ridden stock characters who easily become obsessed with surviving the coming nuclear war.
We witness Orianna (Shelia Willis) who becomes the nasty “queen” of the Halloran House after the death (murder?) of Lionel Halloran as we see in the play’s opening scene. From there all the characters jockey for position and power while living together in the walled estate. As the bickering ensues, Aunt Fanny (Morgan McCabe) has a vision from Lionel predicting doom on the world that can only let the walled estate and its inhabitants survive. Her visions and the visions by second cousin Gloria (Philena Gilmer) who stares into a mirror and predicts everyone could be wiped out by the end of August. What? Add more strange plot twists and an unbelievable set of reactions by all the characters and you end up with a boring, poorly acted (and staged) play. I wonder why Edward’s selected Jackson’s 1959 novel?
This sprawling work is simply trying to do too much. Mixing humor and fright only leads to silliness and incoherence. The base mystery is never solved and the easy acquiescence to impending doom ring hallow. Paul Edwards has had several successful adaptations of Jackson’s scripts but this is not one of them.
Date Reviewed: January 10, 2017.
For more info checkout The Sundial page at theatreinchicago.com.
At City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago, IL,