Last Friday evening, Raleigh Little Theatre’s presentation of Veronica’s Room opened on schedule, despite an imminent threat of snow, which was 1-3 inches deep by the show’s final curtain. Inside, a sparse opening-night audience watched as RLT recreated the thrills and chills of the harrowing 1973 drama by American novelist and playwright Ira Levin (1929-2007).
Veronica’s Room unfolds on a balmy spring evening in a mysterious attic room of a house just one-half hour from Boston. As I watched it weave its spell over the RLT first-nighters, I could not help but think of a favorite movie, Dead of Winter, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Mary Steenburgen as an out-of-work actress who receives an offer she can’t refuse from Roddy McDowall. It is the dead of winter in New York City, circa 1987; and McDowall is desperately seeking for a replacement for a female film star who’s had a nervous breakdown in the final days of filming a major motion picture. All that’s left to lens are a few long shots and odds and ends in which Steenburgen, who’s a dead ringer for the incapacitated actress, would be a virtual stand-in and make big bucks in the process. So, off she goes to a remote country home in Upstate New York — in the snow — to impersonate an actress she looks just like. Only there is no movie, and McDowall has other plans for his replacement leading lady....
Now, back in Boston, circa 1973, on the fine spring evening specified in the scene synopsis for Veronica’s Room. A kindly older couple named John and Maureen Mackey (Phil Lewis and Christine Rogers) meet young Boston college student Susan Kerner (Sarah Bousquet) in a restaurant and inform her that she’s a dead ringer for the long-dead daughter of their employer. In fact, there’s a picture in Veronica’s room that will prove it.
So, Susan and her date Larry Eastwood (Derek Taylor), a young lawyer whom she’s just met, follow the Mackeys back to the Brabissant mansion and the spooky upstairs room where young Veronica allegedly spent her last eight years on Earth battling tuberculosis. Unfortunately for Susan Kerner, but fortunately for the RLT audience that watched this show from the edges of their seats, the Mackeys are lying — like the faux filmmakers in Dead of Winter — about their real reasons for approaching Susan and Larry, and their plans for the evening would make the young couple’s hair stand on end.
Phil Lewis and especially Christine Rogers do a fine job as John and Maureen — if those are their real names — and sunny demeanor hides impulses as dark as midnight in a coal mine during a lunar eclipse. There is an increasingly palpable air of menace in their solicitude, and Rogers and Lewis express it well as they exchange telling glances.
Sarah Bousquet is likewise convincing as a gullible Pollyannaish college student who wants to believe the best about everyone, and finds out too late that pure evil often can wear a smiling face and offer a helping hand. Derek Taylor, who has less to do as Larry, nevertheless does it quite effectively; and RLT guest director Shawn Smith surehandedly orchestrates the action, so that the suspense builds to a startling climax.
Raleigh Little Theatre set designer Rick Young does an outstanding job of creating all the nooks and crannies of Veronica’s room in chilling detail, costume designer Jenny Butler sews striking outfits for each character, and technical director and lighting designer Jim Zervis artfully illuminates the action. Veronica’s Room has a heart of ice, which makes it the perfect play for a wintery evening that brings Dead of Winter so vividly back to mind. Don’t miss either of them.
Veronica’s Room will complete its three-week run on Feb. 18-21 and 25-28 at Raleigh Little Theatre. See our theatre calendar for details.