Many theaters, especially small, neighborhood ones, have a dilemma this time of year. Halloween beckons, and how do they answer? There’s “Dracula,” but didn’t we do that last time? How about “Frankenstein”? Nah, way too much makeup.
The Brea Theatre League has responded by exhuming a rarely produced adaptation of Dorothy MacArdle’s quaint ghost story, “The Uninvited.” It and MacArdle became somewhat famous in 1944 when the tale was made into a fairly successful movie starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, but exposure since has been fleeting, like an apparition spied briefly on the stairs.
At the Curtis Theatre, director Dan Blackley has asked his cast to play this chestnut straight, and that’s a problem. These days, with real-life monsters like Jeffrey Dahmer and Richard Ramirez out there, an old-fashioned ghost adventure is unlikely to cause chills. So for something like “The Uninvited,” a better approach might be to camp it up.
Tim Kelly’s adaptation offers opportunities: There are several creak-filled scenes and comically arch characters to goof around with. But Blackley rarely gets playful. Only Caitlin McKenna as Wendy, an actress who sidelights as a nearly-bonkers psychic, has any real fun. Shrieking and snapping into trances whenever things get slow, she’s a likable nut, full of manic enthusiasm.
The susceptible Wendy shows up fairly late in the first act, just after the plot has been carefully established. Pamela and Roddy Fitzgerald (Racquelle Daniel-Noggle and Darren Boyett) have bought the eerie Cliff End mansion from the odd but lovely Stella (Alexi Armantage) and her overbearing grandfather, Commander Brooke (Tony Grande).
Before the deal is signed, the frosty Commander warns the Fitzgeralds that strange things happen at Cliff End, but they just smirk. As soon as their bags are unpacked, however, an icy cold descends on the living room and, a little later, they hear crying in the nursery. Then a ghost strolls in, surrounded by a cloud of stage fog and Alfred Ronquillo Jr.'s effectively creepy lighting.
Despite Blackley’s unimaginative approach, the production isn’t hard to take. It can be diverting, and the acting is decent by amateur standards, although the English accents seem to be optional. (The League might have reset the story on the stormy Eastern Seaboard, thus saving from embarrassment those performers who don’t feel up to tampering with their American vowels and consonants).
Boyett is capable as the somewhat bemused Roddy, as is Daniel-Noggle as his equally bemused sister. But as the ethereal, child-like Stella, Armantage overplays it. So does Grande, who makes the Commander one big blast of nasty hot air.
* “The Uninvited,” Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 16. $7-$12.50. (714) 990-7722. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Alexi Armantage: Stella Meredith
Racquelle Daniel-Noggle: Pamela Fitzgerald
Darren Boyett: Roddy Fitzgerald
Tony Grande: Commander Brooke
Mary O’Brien: Lizzie Flynn
Karyn Campa: Mrs. Jessup
Caitlin McKenna: Wendy Carey
Jeff Sanna: Max Hilliard
Jack Egan: Dr. Scott
Norma Evans: Miss Holloway
A Brea Theatre League production of Tim Kelly’s adaptation of a story by Dorothy MacArdle. Directed by Dan Blackley. Set by Robert Wyatt. Lighting by Alfred Ronquillo Jr. Sound by Gary Christensen. Costumes by Michelle Eden. Makeup and hair by Cherie L. Menken.