Despite a few strong performances, ‘Sundial’ doesn’t quite deliver
|City Lit Theater presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Watching The Sundial feels like watching a college directing project. The set is cobbled together, the adaptation earnest but clumsy, the intentions good but not quite entertaining. Director Paul Edwards’ world premiere rendition of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name aims to be a gothic dysfunctional family story. Instead, it’s stiff and often dull, with moments that never ring true. Half of the cast seem utterly out of place, the other half capable but often unsure what to do with the source material. Though Edwards has previously won Jeff Awards for his adaptations, The Sundial isn’t likely to earn him the same.
It’s late spring 1958, and the Halloran family heir Lionel (whom the audience never sees) has just died. As residents of the Halloran estate return home from the funeral, Lionel’s mother Orianna (Sheila Willis) immediately begins to implement changes. She flaunts her younger lover Essex (John Blick) and loudly schemes to remove her granddaughter Fancy (Lauren Mangum) from Fancy’s mother and Lionel’s widow Maryjane (Teresa Champion). Meanwhile, Maryjane suspects that Orianna murdered Lionel, her own son, in order to inherit the estate, and increasingly creepy hijinks ensue.
Author Shirley Jackson, who wrote the novel of the same name, is best-known for two works of literature: 1. the 1948 short story “The Lottery” has been adapted countless times for stage, TV and film, most likely for its aura of growing tension and darkness as a small town ritual takes a deadly but typical turn, and 2. her 1958 novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” a story that you likely know even if you haven’t read it. I’m not sure The Sundial is a wise choice for a stage play. Much of the characters’ history and motivations seem lost without the context of the written word, and the occasional narration by three different actors feels put-upon and condescending. Even the show’s program lays out “the moment before,” which feels both superfluous and silly. Some books are best left that way, and The Sundial is one of them. Edwards’ adaptation and direction are plodding, relying on jokes that aren’t funny and characters saying their actions out loud, both of which go over like a lead balloon.
Edwards is also a big fan of inserting Jackson quotes wherever and whenever possible. The program has one, and the set has two (one on the telltale sundial). Set designer Charles C. Palia, Jr. and costume designer Patti Roeder appear to have cobbled together anything that looks vaguely late-1950’s, and the result is a thrown-together mishmash that distracts from the action of the play. The actors are a mixed bag, and more often than not sound like they’re reading their dialogue off of cue cards. Willis is convincingly conniving as Orianna but appears to be at least two decades too young to play the character. As the dumb young lover Essex, Blick appears comfortable with his witty barbs and wields a martini glass with aplomb. Nora Lise Ulrey displays excellent physicality and facial expressions, and Mangum is pure sadistic fun as the bad-seed type daughter Fancy.
Despite a few strong performances, The Sundial fails to fully deliver. Jackson was a wonderful, haunting writer whose work influenced modern bestselling authors such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. However, not every literary work adapts well to the stage. Edwards is very clearly passionate about Jackson, and about The Sundial, but again, passion doesn’t always translate. Boring where it should be suspenseful, The Sundial is slow and forgettable, and meaningful, it seems, only to its adapter and director.
The Sundial continues through February 12th at Location, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $29 (seniors: $25, students/military: $10), and are available through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at CityLit.org. (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Tom McGrath
Kingsley Day (Richard, Miss Inverness), Sheila Willis (Orianna), Morgan McCabe (Frances, “Aunt Fanny”), Edward Kuffert (Father), Teresa Champion (MaryJane, Edna, Narrator), Lauren Mangum (Fancy), Christina Renee Jones (Miss Ogilvie), John Blick (Essex), Stephanie Monday (Augusta Willow), Nora Lise Ulrey (Julia, Narrator), Philena Gilmer (Gloria Desmond, Hazel, Narrator), Edward Kuffert (Soda Fountain Clerk, Driver)
behind the scenes
Paul Edwards (adapter, director, sound and props design), Charles C. Palia Jr. (set design), Liz Cooper (lighting design), Patti Roeder (costume design), David Yondorf (stage violence design), Billy Siegenfeld (“Big Party” choreography), Josh Raether (stage manager), Hazel Marie Flowers-McCabe (production manager), Tom McGrath (photographer)