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O.C. THEATER REVIEW : Laguna Shines Even as It Gets Melodramatic : The playhouse tackles a 19th-Century staple, Augustin Daly’s ‘Under the Gaslight,’ and brings it back to life with style.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Think melodrama is dead? Check out your local cineplex, or your television. We’re not considering the travesty melodrama, with villains leeringly twirling their mustaches, heroines so pure, heroes so brave, and all the hissing and booing that goes along with it. The real melodrama, from which those silly charades descended, was the staple of popular theater in the 19th Century.

Exaggerated and often simplistic but full of social conflict and strong emotions, the melodrama of that era--including plays based on Dickens and such stalwarts as “Les Miserables"--gripped audiences not only in New York but everywhere, through the efforts of hundreds of traveling rep companies playing one-night stands.

Augustin Daly’s “Under the Gaslight,” in a stylish revival at the Laguna Playhouse, was one of the most popular plays of that time. Its colors look sort of primary today, its volume seems a bit louder, but it’s still a lot of fun, with its heroines switched in their cribs when babies, its breathtaking railroad track rescue, and a hero who has his weaknesses along with his matinee-idol looks and his ability to change emotional horses in midstream.

Director Andrew Barnicle knows the territory. The production’s style and tone are just right, with a sense of naturalism that shines throughout. The heightened intensity of the acting couldn’t be more perfect for this period piece, and Barnicle has managed to re-create the effect of one of those traveling troupes that entertained towns small and big a century and a half ago, even beyond the program listing of actors as “Mr. Antonik” or “Miss Mears.”

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There is the striking grandeur in Teressa McKillop’s attitude and delivery as Laura Courtland who, we are told, is an orphan instead of the well-born young lady everyone believes her to be. McKillop’s performance is impeccable not only as Laura, but also subliminally as the leading lady of a touring company.

Stephen Kean Mathews creates the same double-edged impression as Ray Trafford, the playboy who refutes his engagement to Laura when he hears of her sordid birth. Stalwart and intent as ever a hero could be, his Ray seems to mask a leading man who might be thinking of an after-theater supper with one of the troupe’s young ladies.

The company’s character actress, played by Jennifer Taub, is as young as many character actresses were in those days. She doubles artfully as a self-righteous society matron bent on destroying Laura, and as the evil grubby Old Judas who claims falsely to be Laura’s mother. Her vile cohort, the drooling Byke, is marvelously held just enough in check in a performance by John Abbot Gardiner, who gives such a surprised look at the first audience hiss that he surely must be, as the troupe’s character man, used to playing more sympathetic roles.

*

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Michael Antonik is one-armed Civil War veteran Snorkey. He obviously is having a marvelous time playing a younger character man getting a shot at the ripe role of this gold-hearted deus ex machina . The company’s “second woman” is Ryan Kray, whose specialty must be comedy, for she infuses much humor into the role of the other Courtland, Pearl, and allows the audience to like her even when she is at her most flagrantly heartless.

Patty Mears, obviously the company’s ingenue, is charming and often funny as Peachblossom, a “girl who was never brought up” but who devotes her life to Laura, and Frank Davis doubles ably as a waffling judge and a voluble railroad signalman.

David Reed and Steve Ross play bon vivants and others, and are especially notable in their period-perfect renditions of contemporary olio numbers in front of the curtain, as are several of the troupe’s young ladies. Nanci Sterling and Kevin Deegan do well in small roles.

The only disturbing note is Barnicle’s casting of Diane Bass and Tiffany Solano as the male street urchins who help Snorkey and others push the plot along. Their antics are out of place in Barnicle’s naturalistic treatment, and even in a poverty row traveling rep, this type of replacement would occur only in a dire emergency.

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* “Under the Gaslight,” Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 10. $10-$30. (714) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

Stephen Kean Mathews: Ray Trafford

Michael Antonik: Snorkey

Teressa McKillop: Laura Courtland

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Ryan Kray: Pearl Courtland

John Abbot: Gardiner Byke

Jennifer Taub: Old Judas/Mrs. Van Dam

Patty Mears: Peachblossom

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Frank Davis: Justice Bowling/Signalman

David Reed: Edward Demilt/Sergeant

Steve Ross Windel

Nanci Sterling: Sue Earlie

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Kevin Deegan: Policeman

Diane Bass: Bermudas

Tiffany Solano: Peanuts

A Laguna Playhouse production of a play by Augustin Daly, directed by Andrew Barnicle. Original music/music direction: Terence Alaric. Choreography: Stephanie Shroyer. Scenic design: Bradley Kay. Costume design: Mary Sadaatmanesh. Lighting design: Paulie Jenkins. Sound design: David Edwards. Stage manager: D. Alexander.

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