HAINES CITY – The vacation that Susan and John Pearson decide to take in a charming, historic farmhouse in France sounds like pure paradise. It’s two weeks of relaxation in one of the world’s most beautiful locations.
They begin to unpack, make some coffee, and settle into the farmhouse they’ve rented in the past and were eager to get back to. At first, nothing out of the ordinary seems to be happening.
In fact, the mundane details of what any couple might do on their first day of a vacation gets interrupted only quite slowly by a few offbeat incidents – like the bizarre-looking stuffed black cat that sits atop the fireplace. A fairly hideous-looking creature, it looks more like something the kids might put outside around Halloween than as a permanent decoration, so it’s not exactly a big surprise when Susan asks her husband to please take it off the mantelpiece and hide it somewhere.
But it’s odd that Susan has such a overwrought reaction to the cat. She begins talking about how much it scares her. A shrieking black cat probably isn’t most homeowners’ idea of a fine wall decoration, but still, Susan seems to be having an overly anxious reaction to seeing it.
John then realizes he’s lost his passport, and may have accidentally left it behind at the airport. The couple searches their luggage but can’t find it, so John prepares to take a drive back there, when there’s a knock on the door. Oddly, it turns out to be Mrs. March, the owner of the farmhouse. Her appearance is a bit peculiar; Mrs. March lives in England and flew in just to check on her vacationing tenants. Just the same, she’s a jolly old soul and responds happily when John offers her some brandy. The three of them sit around the table, chatting in a friendly way.
Watching the early scenes of the Haines City Community Theatre’s production of “Being of Sound Mind,” it’s difficult at first to figure out where the play is headed – or what it is. Susan and John respond to being back in the farmhouse in a fairly low key manner, and it seems like the play might be a domestic drama, about a couple who delve into their personal problems courtesy of the isolation of being alone in the countryside. But it never heads in that direction; the dialogue remains simple, covering such surface-level topics as where the kitchen appliances are and how the drive was across the countryside.
When Mrs. March shows up with her thick British accent and colorful mannerism and phrases, it seems like the play is about to become a comedy, perhaps one where a straight laced couple deal with their wacky landlord. But that doesn’t happen, either. Instead, John heads back to the airport, and in a genuine surprise, Susan suddenly opens up to Mrs. March about the emotional turmoil she’s been going through since a family tragedy occurred. And as Susan finds herself delving into greater and greater detail about her struggles coping with this tragedy, she does something quite unexpected: she asks Mrs. March straight out if the woman thinks she’s acting crazy.
From there, “Being of Sound Mind” tumbles into a dark hole, with a series of twists and turns best left for the audience to see – and enjoy – for themselves.
This play by Brian J. Burton turns out to be the kind of psychological thriller that Alfred Hitchcock used to enjoy – and, in fact, Burton isn’t even shy about tossing out some of his influences, mentioning both Hitchcock and the 1944 classic “Gaslight” during the show. That’s fine, I suppose, almost like a cultural reference point to a generation of theater fans that can remember the likes of “Dial M For Murder” and, at that point, have a good reason to expect to be baffled, and entertained as they’re forced to guess what the heck is going on.
Burton does have fun with his various twists and turns, and actress Jennifer A. Tesso gets better and better as Susan’s situation begins to look more terrifying by the minute. She alternates between seeming almost on the verge of hysteria one moment – and then, a second later, she remembers a significant detail. Then, almost like Columbo on the trail of a crucial clue, she starts putting some of the pieces together. Tesso makes a likeable heroine; she builds strength as she tries to figure out what’s going on.
Likewise, it’s a pure delight to watch Donna McOnie play Mrs. March, a woman who seems so gentle and sweet one moment, then almost harshly blunt and unsympathetic the next. That’s a tough balancing act, but McOnie does it well.
But the production could also use a bit of refining, starting with the first half hour or so, before Mrs. March arrives. The pacing is slow, almost painfully so, and part of the problem is that Susan and John both come across as colorless and bland in the beginning. When Susan’s downfall begins, it’s hard to believe this is the same woman who started out the show talking in such a flat, almost monotone voice. Surely Susan, even in moments when not much is happening, has a more vibrant personality than she displays when the couple first arrives, particularly when she and John argue over small things, such as his unwillingness to let her do the driving. There isn’t much passion in Tesso’s delivery at first, so that by the time she opens up to Mrs. March about her tragedy, in such a passionate and heartfelt way, that you start to wonder if Susan has a twin with a livelier personality who snuck into the room and replaced her.
The theater’s director, Renee Palmer, would do well to pick up the pace of those early scenes, and allow Susan to demonstrate a more outgoing personality from the very start. I’m guessing that both the theater and Burton wanted a slow start so that the twists to come would seem more gripping and startling; but I doubt the theater would lose much by improving on the opening.
It would also help compliment the very fine work that Tesso and McOnie deliver as Burton starts running with his insane plot – including that reappearing black cat. “Being of Sound Mind” is a fun thriller, that delivers. A little bit of tinkering would make this production even better.
“Being of Sound Mind” runs through Feb. 19. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays., at
the Clay Cut Center, 801 Ledwith Ave., in downtown Haines City. Tickets are $10, and to make reservations, call 863-421-1893 or log on to www.hainescitytheatre.com.
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