note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson’s 1965 mystery drama, “The Rimers of Eldritch,” is like watching a malfunctioning film. It starts, stops, rewinds, repeats, shifts, rewinds, repeats, in two acts, and less than two hours.
Director Weylin Symes is faithful to Wilson’s mission --- to present a murder mystery that takes place around 1965 in Bible Belt, defunct, Eldritch, Missouri, a former mining town of 70, where everybody knows everybody else’s business. If they don’t, they lie or talk about it anyway. Wilson intended the action to unfurl exactly as these people heard snippets of, repeated, and gossiped about each other, and the murder; but not injustice or their ugly secrets.
These God-fearing, law-abiding folks go to church reverentially, where the good preacher (Dale Place, who also serves as the judge) says everyone’s at fault, absolving spinster Nelly Winrod for killing town vagrant Skelly Mannor (Joel Colodner). She thought he was attacking 14-year-old Eva Jackson (Isabelle Miller).
This impressive cast of 17 is continuously on stage in both 45-minute acts, as rumors and action fly. Since there are so many primary, interactive characters, lighting designer Jeff Adelberg uses individual spotlights to separate scenes that continuously flow into each other.
Set Designer Kathryn Kawecki created an angular wooden stage, placing defendant Nelly at times on a slightly raised dais. Standing in the raw spotlight, Nelly gives her fragmented testimony, tucked between intertwining events. Two women are seated in the center stage, gossiping throughout, while Nelly’s elderly, addled mother, Mary (portrayed convincingly by M. Lynda Robinson) flutters about, repeating harmful stories and accusations. Although there isn’t much to do in Eldritch, most of these remaining stalwarts lack incentive to leave
. The trial is pretty much a sham, since everyone knows Mannor was an old, no-account homeless eccentric who looked in people’s windows and saw more than he should have.
Through fragmented scenes, one by one, people’s secrets and inter-relationships unwind. We’re told upfront that Wilson divided the play into two acts so that during intermission, the audience could think about and piece together the plot and characters’ personalities. Wilson then ties all threads together in the second act, through another shifting series of rewinds, repeats, fast forwards, and an abrupt ending that delivers his goal - people leaving the theater, discussing “Rimers”.
Unfortunately, star Marianna Bassham’s role as Nelly is neither long or challenging enough for her to unleash her full power. However, Daniel Berger-Jones shines as handsome drifter Walter, who charms lonely, older cafe owner, Cora Groves (equally effective Linda Goetz) into hiring and keeping him. Walter suddenly disappears during the town’s melee - for his own reasons.
Other underused actors include Georgia Lyman, Bobbie Steinbach, and Stoneham Young Academy’s sisters, Isabelle (Eva) and Olivia Miller (Lena), and Annabel Steven as teen-ager Patsy Johnson, who wants desperately to get out of Eldritch.
“Rimers” has some good moments, but its momentum would probably intensify more dramatically in one act.
BOX INFO: Two-act mystery, written by Lanford Wilson, appearing at the Stoneham Theatre (395 Main St., Stoneham) through April 10. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets:$38-$44; senior discounts; students, $20; also student/senior discount matinees. Call 781-279-2200 or visit www.stonehamtheatre.org.