Chicago Theatre Review
Waiting for the End
The Sundial – City Lit Theatre
Best known for her short story, “The Lottery,” American horror writer Shirley Jackson also authored several popular novels. They include We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. Prior to these Miss Jackson wrote a novel called The Sundial which, like many of her other works, was set in a palatial home that becomes another character in the story. The novel is filled with a multitude of mostly unlikable characters who inhabit the rooms and corridors of the Halloran house and who are trying to cope with what might be the end of the world.
Northwestern University associate professor Paul Edwards is known in Chicago theatre for his variety of fine literary adaptations for the stage. He’s been deservedly praised for his excellent dramatic interpretations of Shirley Jackson’s better-known novels, but his adaptation of this, one of the author’s earlier, lesser-known stories, is almost impossible to follow.
The plot is quite complicated. It opens following the suspicious death of Lionel Halloran. Maryjane, his widow, suspects that Orianna, Lionel’s mother, murdered her son by pushing him down the stairs. She’s also poisoned the mind of Fancy, her obnoxious young daughter, with her suspicions. In addition, the unlikable, domineering Oriana has become the inherited matriarch of the Halloran mansion. While reluctantly providing constant nursing care for her senile, wheelchair-bound husband, Richard, she’s also blatantly carrying on an affair with Essex, a handsome, younger man hired to catalog the vast Halloran library.
Also living in the spacious estate are Aunt Fanny, Richard’s elderly sister, who experiences visions of gloom and doom from the ghost of their deceased father. She shares the specter’s message that the world is coming to an end and that only those living in the house will be saved. Also living in Halloran house is Miss Ogilvie, Fancy’s spinster governess. Into the fold arrive several other characters. Augusta Willow, Oriana’s old, gold digging friend, arrives with her spoiled teenage daughter, Julia. Soon Gloria, Oriana’s young cousin shows up, seeking refuge while her father is out of the country.
After hearing Aunt Fanny’s forecast of devastation, Augusta convinces Gloria to dabble in an old parlor game of looking into an oil-coated mirror to see the future. On several occasions, Gloria sees the terrifying destruction of the world and the emergence of a new Garden of Eden. Finally, Oriana decides that, if the world’s truly ending, she should be made Queen of everyone and everything that remains. In a strange gesture of generosity, Oriana invites the entire community over for a big party, supposedly to commemorate the anniversary of the estate, but really to celebrate her monarchy and the end of mankind. The play ends with the electricity going out, the winds cranking up and, when the other inhabitants gather together for the night, they discover Oriana’s dead body at the foot of the stairs. She’s carried outside to the garden to lie near the sundial and be swept away by the coming storm.
This often confusing and somewhat depressing play might’ve been improved had Edwards not tried so meticulously to capture every single element of the novel. There are strange moments of unexpected humor, which only tend to confuse the theatergoer. Is this a camp comedy? A murder mystery? A ghost story? A tale of revenge? Or is this a cautionary science fiction drama about how one selfish family, perhaps a microcosm of society, could finally bring the downfall of civilization?
The playwright’s also filled his play with so many characters that the audience loses track of their identify and their relationship to one other. In fairness, Mr. Edwards has combined Augusta’s two daughters into a single character. Also, the villagers are represented by just a handful of actors doing double duty. But there are simply far too many individuals for the audience to remember or with whom to identify. Certainly there’s no one deserving of our concern or empathy. And none of the characters receive enough focus for us to even determine whose story it is that we’re watching.
In addition to adapting Shirley Jackson’s novel for the stage, Paul Edwards has directed the production, created the props and designed the sound. It might’ve been a bit too much for one artist to handle. Edwards has staged his production everywhere and made use of the entire venue, including the aisles. He’s utilized every inch of Charles C Palia’s scenic design, which suggests a magnificent palatial estate, as well as the gardens and a few other locales. The result is adequate but not especially artistic. The titular sundial is always visible and placed far downstage; however, it’s not clear, at first, if this sculpture is inside or outside of the house. Patti Roeder’s costumes are colorful and elaborate and Liz Cooper’s lighting design has met the challenge of creating various times of the day and night, as well as a violent storm.
The eleven member cast work admirably to tell this convoluted story, although Edwards has allowed for some moments of overacting and unwelcome shouting and screaming. Morgan McCabe has some nice moments as Aunt Fanny, allowing her rich, mellifluous voice to tell the stories of her past. Kingsley Day, always a welcome performer in any show, is very believable as a senile Richard and the village shopkeeper, Miss Inverness. John Blick has some good scenes as Essex, Edward Kuffert plays several roles with his usual impeccable delivery and conviction and Stephanie Monday creates a Tennessee Williams-like heroine out of greedy Augusta Willow.
A play about an unlikable group of people, none of whom love or care for each other, is difficult to enjoy. The story is confusing and the focus is all over the place. We never really know whose story we’re watching. Unfortunately, for all the talented theatre artists who have devoted so much time and energy into this production, waiting for the end to come is an excruciating event, both for the characters and the audience.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 6-February 12 by City Lit Theatre on the 2nd floor of the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the door or by going to www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2587094.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.