Novel adapted well to stage

Play: The Colonial Players' superb acting - and attempts at English accents - makes `Rebecca' fun to watch.


Arundel Live

April 29, 2004|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With her story Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier the novelist had some definite advantages over Daphne du Maurier the playwright.

For starters, the setting for this suspenseful tale of a tenuous present overwhelmed by a painful past is Manderley, an estate on England's fog-shrouded southwestern edge - and what novelist could resist embellishing her plot with evocative descriptions a playwright could only envy?

But du Maurier's play, penned 10 years after the novel was published in 1930, isn't slouchy as the folks at Colonial Players of Annapolis proved Friday evening when Rebecca opened at Colonial's intimate, state-of-the-art theater off State Circle. A good story is a good story in any medium, and du Maurier's characters are strong, vivid and fun to watch.

There's Maxim, the just-wed scion of Manderley, whose painful memories of Rebecca, his deceased first wife, begin taking a toll on his second marriage before the ink on the new wedding license is dry.

The new Mrs. Maxim de Winter, a shy, young girl who fell for the sophisticated aristocrat in Italy and followed him to Cornwall, finds her path to happiness blocked by Rebecca's legacy and a sinister housekeeper out to uphold her dead mistress' primacy at Manderley at all costs.

Throw in a caddish ex-lover, a prying, self-absorbed, madcap sister and a police detective out to solve the mystery of Rebecca's death, and and the play has the makings of a cleverly conceived seat-squirmer waiting for a talented cast to bring it to life. And in that regard, Colonial succeeds.

Michael P. Sullivan is a suitably agonized Maxim, fitful and distracted as we get to know him, yet honorable as skeletons come tumbling out of his closet.

Rebecca Ellis, who starred in Colonial's version of Barbara Lebow's Shayna Maydel a couple of seasons back, returns as Maxim's vulnerable young wife and gives us plenty to admire as her tears of sadness become a reservoir of strength when the chips are down.

Most riveting of all is Mary Fawcett Watko as Mrs. Danvers, the creepy housekeeper whose fealty to a corpse casts a pall, especially on the young woman who dares to take Rebecca's place as first lady of Manderley. With her purring, authentic English accent oozing both menace and charm, Watko is engrossing as she takes the new Mrs. de Winter under her wing and dresses her for the annual ball.

Susan Struve is exceptional as Maxim's sister Beatrice, a maddening bundle of comic relief whose penchant for ignoring boundaries is exceeded only by her flair for meaningless conversation.

And Clarke Hansen Madden brings a sleazy stature to Jack Favell, the shady character whose libidinous past plays an important part in the unraveling of Rebecca's demise.

The only flaw in the acting is the inconsistency of the British accents, which range from expert to laughably bad. Otherwise, Craig Allen Mummey's production is superb, with an unusually high level of cast chemistry on opening night.

Rebecca plays at The Colonial Players Theatre, 108 East St., Annapolis, Thursdays to Sundays through May 22. 410-268-7373.

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