Place where things cheery turn eerie

`Murder' starts off friendly enough, but 'burb, script have a darker side

Theater Review

August 02, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Picture the kind of place where folks stop by with a bottle of champagne to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood. The houses are beautiful, the grounds are meticulous and everyone is so helpful and friendly, you want to move right in.

That's the warm, inviting atmosphere that director Wil Love and set designer Kathleen A. Runey convey to a T at the start of the latest show at Totem Pole Playhouse. And, indeed, this lovely summer theater, located in the sylvan setting of Pennsylvania's Caledonia State Park, is welcoming in its own right.

But this particular play is called Murder in Green Meadows, so you know the warmth and friendship of the opening scene won't last long. In this case, more than the title turns out to be predictable.

The contrast between the bright, cheery suburbs (Green Meadows is the name of a fancy subdivision) and an eerie suspense story is enticing. But most of the thrills in this thriller are muffled.

Part of the problem is that playwright Douglas Post doesn't merely plant clues, he telegraphs them. The subject of recent neighborhood burglaries crops up several times, as does one character's habit of losing her keys. And whenever you hear a line like: "It's perfect, air-tight, no loose ends," you know things are about to unravel.

The sense of foreboding underlining the performances of David Engelman and Tess Hartman further compounds the tendency to lay it on thick. Engelman and Hartman play Thomas and Joan Devereaux, the newcomers in Green Meadows. Thomas is the architect and builder who created this housing development; Joan is his submissive wife.

Actually, Joan is more than submissive, she's cowed. As soon as she and Thomas are alone, there's an odd tension between them. Hartman begins to behave like a depressed Stepford Wife, and Engelman goes into passive-aggressive mode.

On the other hand, their Green Meadows neighbors, Jeff and Carolyn Symons, appear to be the ideal, happily married couple, as normal as the proverbial apple pie. Affable Robert Sean Fri and gregarious Shirleyann Kaladjian deliver thoroughly creditable performances as this well-adjusted pair. Even though we learn that Carolyn had a minor breakdown a while back, Kaladjian resists layering ominous overtones onto her chipper character.

Not surprisingly, when these two couples become fast friends, it can only spell trouble for blissful Jeff and Carolyn. Add a dose of infidelity to the mix and Green Meadows begins to look like a far less inviting place.

Mysteries are a perennial favorite in Totem Pole Playhouse's summer stock season. And Murder in Green Meadows has a good pedigree - it was created for television in 1986 by Chicago's acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The TV version was only 30 minutes long, however, which may have heightened the suspense.

Totem Pole's production will occasionally have you guessing, but you won't be on the edge of your seat. It's regrettable that the traps set at the end of each act are so similar. But most of all, it's regrettable that the script isn't constructed as soundly as Runey's stunning, modern set.

Murder in Green Meadows

Where: Totem Pole Playhouse, 9555 Golf Course Road, Caledonia State Park, Fayetteville, Pa., 15 miles west of Gettysburg

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 11

Admission: $20.50-$27.50

Call: 888-805-7056

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