My Cousin Rachel by Diana Morgan, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Directed by Jason LaSusa.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"The best thing in the Ashley collection."
Stephanie Tanaka and Rozara Sanders; photo: Daniel Region
Novelist Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca) continued her series of books about dark, mysterious women whose names begin with R in 1951 with her successful novel, "My Cousin Rachel." It inspired a film with Olivia deHavilland and Richard Burton, two separate plays (neither of which made to the mainstream theater of Broadway) and a half-dozen or so parodies (none of which were memorable). All of the "Rachels" share one unfortunate lapse: suspense. At the Ghent Playhouse Diana Morgan’s version of the book is playing with an excellent cast but the suspense that a work of this kind requires is, once again, just not there.
In this 1980 script with its voice-over narration at the start and the finish, Philip Ashley falls in love with his distant cousin, his Uncle’s ex-wife, Rachel, an Italian woman whose Cornish roots are as deep as his own. Philip is twenty-four and his cousin Rachel is eleven years older. She has suffered through two short marriages during which both of her husbands have died under suspicious circumstances. He comes to Cornwall England to meet her cousin Philip who inherited all of her husband Ambrose’s possessions including property, jewelry and money. With deep mourning coloring her dark visage she is as beautiful, delicate and enticing as any woman could possibly be and the young Philip, suspicious of her motives from the start, falls deeply in love with her. That is his downfall, his undoing.
To reveal any more of the story would be to remove any of the suspense that such a story requires. The script, lengthy and thought-provoking (the show runs almost three hours) is talky. Many of the novel’s characters are gone or reduced to a minimum. But the psychology of love is what is explored here in rich detail and that takes time. Love, its attendant jealousies and suspicions, is what is at stake in this play. That can be very exciting. In this play it is reduced to plot points but in the Ghent Playhouse production several excellent actors make the most of what the story provides.
Michael Meier plays Philip with a sincerity that is so strong it takes on an over-intense quality that bears fruit in the final scenes. There are moments, early in the play, where I wished he had been a bit more the man his Philip becomes later on. An occasional flare would have been nice, pointing us toward the obsessive qualities of du Maurier’s Philip, but instead he has opted for a bland, non-responsive youth who is driven mad by his obsession. This works well for him in the second act, but not so much in the first act. Overall, Meier’s work in this role is excellent, just not perfect for the character.
As his uncle/trustee, Paul Murphy delivers a solidly secure characterization of a man who has no idea of what is going on until it’s too late to save his charge from becoming romantically involved with a woman he can never claim as his own. Murphy is an actor who needs strong direction and it appears that Jason LaSusa has not been giving this actor what he needs for his insecurities keep his role from developing as it should. When he delivers news to Philip he is strong and definite and firm. When he has no news to deliver he is static and ubiquitous. Like Meier he needed to be given shots in the psyche in many of the earlier moments of the play to fully develop his role, but LaSusa has not taken the firm, definitive stances needed.
Newcomer Rozara Sanders delivers nicely in the role of Louise, the young woman who loves Philip with youthful sincerity. She has a naturalism that is most engaging and charming and her reactive acting, her listening moments, are remarkable for the clarity they bring to her role. The program claims she is 15 years old, but her performance places her much further along on the human scale. This is a performer to watch. Hopefully she will continue to appear with the mainstays at the Playhouse.
Todd Hamilton walks through the role of Rainaldi, the worst written role in the play, adding little to what should appear to be the collusion and plotting of cousin Rachel.
George Filieau as Seecombe, the butler, is marvelous. He brings vocal colors into the show that allow this character, who has been with the family for decades, to shine through exposition and development. Another debut actor at the Ghent Playhouse I hope we see him again and again. Sam Reilly is fine as James.
It is to the credit of Stephanie Tanaka in the title role that there is any mystery in this play at all. Her portrayal of the mysterious Italian whose beauty strikes into the hearts of many men is nearly flawless. Tanaka brings light and dark together in her performance with quixotic mood changes and vocal transitions that shock and delight at the same time. Her natural beauty is enhanced by the costumes designed for her by Joanne Maurer (the same can be said for the clothing provided to Sanders, but sadly not for the men in the play) and by the movements she employs to accompany her lines. She is provocative. She is enticing. She is cold as ice at moments and warm as a cozy fire when needed. Her complete and instantaneous mood swings define her Rachel and keep us interested in the story. This is wonderful work.
The physical production is good with a fine set designed by Tom Detwiler, the Maurer costumes and the quirkiest, least effective lighting design I’ve seen in a long time by Max Lagonia who was also responsible for the hard to hear voice-overs. I do believe that a stage light outside the window must have blown out for the integrity of daytime scenes was lost before Act Two began. Technical elements like sound and light can easily affect the response to a show and Lagonia and LaSusa may have attempted something psychological that technically they could not bring off.
My Cousin Rachel is one of my favorite novels. I like the movie. This theatrical version is not as well wrought as either of its predecessors. There are reasons why some plays do not make it to Broadway (not even for 1 performance) and the weaknesses in this script are legion. Even so, to see performances like Tanaka’s, Meier’s and Sanders’ in roles of such complexity makes this a go-to show at the Ghent Playhouse. So — go to it.
George Filieau and Sam Reilly; photo: Daniel Region
Michael Meier and Stephanie Tanaka; photo: Daniel Region
My Cousin Rachel plays weekends through February 9 at the Ghent Playhouse on Route 66 in Ghent, New York. For further information or to order tickets call 800-838-3006 or go to GHENTPLAYHOUSE.ORG