I’LL BE BACK BEFORE MIDNIGHT by Peter Colley
When I was first offered the job of directing this show I wondered If I was the appropriate director for the project. I found no immediate way into the play and no initial creative “hook” that might inspire a vision or approach. The play, originally written and set in the late 1980s, is a murder tale that follows a familiar mystery trope. After an emotional breakdown, a young wife is released from a “hospital” and moved into a remote farm house where her “sensitive” writer husband can look after her. Drama ensues when the young wife begins “seeing things.” Her sanity is challenged in the form of her husband’s mean sister who comes to visit unexpectedly, and the odd neighbor from down the road, who tends to show up, also unexpectedly, providing tidbits of information about a past murder in the area, and generally serving to confuse and scare the young wife. The tension (and fun) for the audience, as in all murder suspense dramas, is guessing who the actual murderer is, and of course, if the young wife will overcome peril.
My instinct for research was to watch every film I could find in the murder mystery/unstable wife genre. Some of the most successfully constructed are found in Hollywood films of the mid-20th century: “Gaslight,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Sorry Wrong Number,” and “Midnight Lace.” As soon as I began watching these old films I knew the hook into the play. I began to see the production as a Hollywood film, set in the technicolor world of the early 1950s. This concept began to inform not only design choices but the style in which the actors would approach their characters and their mode of communication in playing their scenes. We adopted a slightly exaggerated style and a larger than life amplification of emotions. I also required the actors to watch and study the films I listed above with special attention to the faux semi-British accents that the actors employed in those films. Contemporary speech patterns and especially those for actors during that time, were informed by notions of good breeding: proper education, elocution lessons, etiquette books, boarding and charm schools. We seized on these as a framework to build the characters in the play. I asked the actors to approach their characters as if they were well known movie actors from the early 1950s who were in a film that was transformed to the live stage.
To support the period and film concept the set designer replaced the typically blue main curtain drop in the theater with a bold red vintage style main curtain. The sound designer, who was also a composer, created thematic musical segments, reminiscent of mystery films, that ended each scene as the red curtain dropped suddenly to the stage. The scenic designer created a slightly exaggerated dark wooden period farmhouse interior, with special attention to a stage left window with draperies from which the murderer would attack the leading lady near the show’s climax. (Yes, during a violent storm, and yes after the electricity goes out and the lights are off!) There was an ominous staircase far upstage center that we used to great effect for dramatic entrances and exits, and a set of double doors opening to that staircase. At one point the leading lady opens the double doors to reveal the body of her sister-in-law hanging suspended from a noose. And of course, the moment was punctuated with intense musical underscoring.
Costumes were an incredibly fun undertaking. The early 1950s period allowed for A-shaped skirts on the women (lots of taffeta), saturated elegant colors for daywear, whimsical evening nightgowns, and impeccable period hair and make-up. The men were in darker more subdued colors, in wool and tweed fabrics.
The work on this project taught me the value in trusting a concept, but trusting it and understanding it so deeply that as a director, you can get buy-in from initially skeptical collaborators. When I first presented my approach to the project, the designers and actors were polite but questioning. Once we got into the process and I was able to demonstrate my understanding of the time period, genre, and tone, and also provide answers for and resources to their questions, everyone was on board. The reaction to the opening night curtain call showed us the audience was in on the fun. I staged the curtain call so that when the red curtain rose, the actors were set in a tableau of frozen poses and expressions, appropriate to a murder mystery. The audience recognized the conceit and erupted in applause. This show was also a great lesson in not judging the material we’re given as a director. I believe it’s our job to find a way to fall in love with the play and allow our passion to ignite a vision that will fuel the entire company throughout the process.