On Theater: A nasty secret in this 'Garden'

As a novelist and playwright, Ira Levin refused to be categorized or pigeonholed. He could produce such rollicking comedies as "Critic's Choice" and "No Time for Sergeants" or delve into more chilling fare like "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Boys from Brazil."

"Dr. Cook's Garden," now being revived at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, falls quite definitely into the latter category. It deals with a small-town Vermont physician and gardening enthusiast who prunes his roses and the village's undesirables with the same meticulous care.

Levin's play is at once a thriller and a morality tale. On one hand, the doctor has produced a town in which, in the words of his young protégé, "life seems so good and satisfying," while on the other, he's guilty of no fewer than 30 murders, including that of the young doc's violent drunkard of a father who once broke his son's arm in a fit of rage.

That injury may keep the younger medico from being drafted into the Vietnam conflict (the play is set in 1966), but he's still horrified at his mentor's dark deeds. This dilemma produces a shocking showdown, which director Brian J. Page plays out for all it's worth.

The role of the titular character demands an actor of immense skill, and NTAC has certainly found one in Bob Fetes, who commands the stage with his decisive manner and pronounced New England accent. Fetes is capable of shifting from down-home folksiness to a terrifying menace reminiscent of another one of Levin's medical characters, Dr. Josef Mengele in "The Boys from Brazil."

The ethical young doctor — fresh from medical school and returning for a visit to his hometown before setting off for Chicago and his own practice — is admirably enacted by Bryan Braunlich. His staunch morality in the face of such overwhelming evil makes for richly enacted conflict that becomes frighteningly physical at the play's climax.

Three townspeople who knit the fabric of rural Vermont complete the stage picture. Andrea LeVela is warm and affecting as the old doc's nurse, Judy Jones is a winning matronly presence as his cook, and Bill Paxon functions nicely as the laconic town constable and assistant gardener.

Set designer Andrew Otero has fashioned an office and residence that conveys a well-worn, "lived-in" appearance. Mitch Atkins' lighting and director Page's sound effects complete the overall late-'60s environment.

Levin's plot, now nearly a half-century old, has hardly lost its terrifying implications. The old doctor's judicious "pruning" may have created a more cordial atmosphere in the town, but the madness in his methods is calculated to chill the blood of playgoers even today, calling to mind the eeriness of "The Stepford Wives," which Levin also created.

"Dr. Cook's Garden" may be an oldie, but in the hands of director Page and his cast, specifically the ominous Bob Fetes, it remains a goodie at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.


Upcoming: Golden West College will present A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" in a one-weekend engagement Feb. 8 through 10 in the college's Stage West Theater. Performance times are 7:30 on the 8th and 9th and 2 p.m. on the 10th, with reservations being taken at (714) 895-8150.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Dr. Cook's Garden"

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 24

Cost: $16

Information: (949) 631-0288

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