Imagine entering the Long Beach Playhouse’s Mainstage theatre to behold a dimly lit stage, at the center of which sits a staircase of exaggerated angular proportion. All around are Victorian-era furnishings, and the haunting strains of Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” fill the space. All this is more than enough to set the mood for a deadly serious suspense thriller, or so one would think. What actually transpires is a psychological dark comedy at once frightening and hysterically funny.
Set in 1905, Ravenscroft, written by Don Nigro and directed by Mitchell Nunn, begins soberly enough. Inspector Ruffing (Noah Wagner) arrives at the rather depressing English country estate to investigate the death of a young man at the manor house the prior evening. The man had fallen down the staircase under mysterious circumstances.
Ruffing first interviews Marcy (Madeleine Cheezum), the beautiful but decidedly hapless governess who is one of five women living at the house. Two others are maid Dolly (Jessica Tegman) and housekeeper Mrs. French (Stephanie Thomas). I always thought a maid and a housekeeper were the same thing, but I digress…
The chuckles begin when the character of Mrs. Ravenscroft (Susan E. Taylor) takes the stage. Taylor leads the amateur cast, all of whom could pass for professional actors. They are that good.
Mrs. R is one of those women who utters her every thought in a generally stream-of-consciousness style. Her prolific verbal tangents and considerable inhibition combine to surprise and humor the audience at almost every turn. Taylor is spectacular in the role, as is Chelsea Mckenzie playing the part of Mrs. R’s highly sensitive 17-year-old daughter Gillian. Gilllian is so prone to impulse that we are meant to doubt her very sanity, and we do. Still, her childlike fantasies, raw intelligence and innocent insistence on the existence of a ghost in the house are sheer delight.
As Ruffing proceeds with his interrogations, each of the women eventually winds up a suspect, even young Gillian. The explanations told by the house’s five occupants not only contradict each other but seem to change with each seemingly earnest telling. In addition, Ruffing discovers that Mr. Ravenscroft had died the same way just three months earlier!
Wagner’s Ruffing evolves from expert police detective to fallible man pushed to the limit by sheer frustration. His patience for what appears to be a plethora of lies eventually wears thin, and he liberally takes to the wine carafe as a result of the strain. Wit and sarcasm hijack his demeanor. More humor.
Thomas’s Mrs. French reveals a mean streak that scares the pants off Tegman’s poor, whiny Dolly, the drama queen.
Tales of sexual escapades, closeted skeletons and heart-wrenching circumstances finally see light of day. Even Ruffing narrowly escapes harm.
After the women’s secrets come out, having surprised even the others among them, the only entirely unexpected outcome turns out to be the truth of the matter.
So let’s summarize. The play’s somber beginning gives way to comedy that our distrust renders mildly disturbing. Deliberate lies turn out to be mostly truth, unbeknownst to even the liars. The humor and suspense build gradually to a chaotic and uproarious climax that ultimately descends into farce. When have you ever seen such a play?
Ravenscroft continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre through May 11. Cost is $24 for general-admission tickets, $21 for seniors and $14 for students with valid ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sunday matinees at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014, option 1, for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org .