Fans of classic audio drama will be happy to learn that Sonic Summerstock Playhouse is here again in full swing! Whether one’s interest lies in mystery, drama, or thrillers, there is something in these production for all. Indeed, the audio summer festival’s skillful performances of plays by Lucille Fletcher and Wyllis Cooper represent audio drama at its best.
Hosted with panache by Jack Ward and David Ault, the shows reproduce classic radio scripts from the 1940s and 50s using new voices from our time. We recently had an opportunity to experience three productions penned by masters of the sound thriller — “Dark Journey” and “That Thing in the Window” by Lucille Fletcher and “Nothing Behind the Door” by Wyllis Cooper.
Indeed, the audio summer festival’s skillful performances of plays by Lucille Fletcher and Wyllis Cooper represent audio drama at its best.
“Dark Journey” is a drama between two women. Ann Brady is in love with Clyde, a non-committal boyfriend. She lives for him, but his attentions are wavering. Can Ann win him back and does she actually have a supernatural power, a “will that can kill,” as she claims? Or are there more natural causes behind a strange death and Clyde’s suddenly rekindled interest in Ann? The riveting performances by Rhiannon McAfee as Ann and Kristy Glick as her confidante Alice are proof that these vintage radio plays are not only worth listening to today, but also worthy of new interpretations.
The other Lucille Fletcher play on offer is “That Thing in the Window.” In a plot line reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful film “Rear Window,” Martin Ames thinks he sees a dead body in the window of a nearby apartment. Maryland Theatre Guide readers will likely enjoy references to the theatre. The Mr. Ames of the story is an actor (which turns out to be a crucial plot element), and there is a veiled reference to the then-popular Broadway play “Arsenic and Old Lace.” (“As it happens, there’s a play on Broadway right now in which two nice old ladies commit murder after murder.”)
With his sightings, Mr. Ames begins to frighten the two elderly sisters who live in the flat across the way (and who cannot see the dead body, “that thing in the window”). In his speech to one of them, we see the highly literate qualities of a Lucille Fletcher script and why these were some of the top productions in classic radio drama: “I’ve always had a feeling for the hidden beyond, the intangible, the shadowy. We are children…children playing along the edge of the ocean. We laugh and toy with the waves…Sometimes one of us slips down into the darkness. Sometimes the depths rise, and we glimpse the yearning things of the eternal.”
The performances in “That Thing in the Window” are excellent throughout, but especially that of Martin Ames by Pete Lutz, in a nervous, frantic performance very different from his role last year as hard-boiled reporter Randy Stone in his own recreation of the radio noir “Nightbeat” series. The music for this and “Dark Journey” are in the style of Bernard Herrmann, who also composed music in key Hitchcock films as well as the themes and other music for the “Twilight Zone” television series and the “Suspense” radio program — and who was married to playwright Lucille Fletcher.
These two audio dramas originally appeared on the long-running radio series, “Suspense.” Here the shows are performed anew by Dream Realm Enterprises. In an interview with Maryland Theatre Guide, director Rachel Pulliam told us: “When selecting a radio drama for recreation, my goal is not to produce it as an exact copy, but to give it a little something extra while still staying true to the original episode. Sometimes this means adding music throughout a scene, or adding different sound effects. I also point out to my voice actors that I’m not looking for exact imitations of the voices used in the original episode. I really enjoy it when the actors create their own take on the role and I always hope my listeners will enjoy it, too!”
The third production heard on Sonic Summerstock Playhouse is Wyllis Cooper’s script “Nothing Behind the Door,” culled from the radio horror series “Quiet, Please.” In this adventure, three thieves run off to a high mountain after robbing a bank, in a plot not unlike “The Pardoner’s Tale” from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Here the thieves find a dark, mysterious storage house in the middle of the night in which they hope to hide the stolen money. One of the men steps inside after throwing a bag of money into the dark storage room…and disappears. What has happened to him? Will the other two follow? Will greed be followed by just punishment, recalling again “The Pardoner’s Tale?”
Cooper’s writing is at times the stuff of poetry. As the narrator intones: “It was half past four when we got to the top. The hotel was dark; the cabins were dark, but the sky! It was just like solid with stars. And you could pretty near reach up and touch ’em. I remembered the old guy in the hundred-inch dome: nothing between us and the stars,” reminding us of a rough-hewn version of Robert Frost, who wrote of the terrifying “empty spaces between stars” in his poem “Desert Places.”
“Nothing Behind the Door” was originally broadcast as an episode to the radio series “Quiet, Please.” Unlike the big-budget series “Suspense” which in its heyday attracted the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, “Quiet, Please” was a lower budget affair. The program used this to its advantage, however, relying on crisp, innovative writing and subjective psychological first-person narration. While the series originally ran for only two years, the reputation of “Quiet, Please” has grown over the years. In fact, the series is the inspiration behind the name of Shhh! Productions, which produced the show reviewed here.
Indeed, Shhh! Productions uses the qualities of the earlier series to its own advantage, with actor David Allen Vargo’s compelling extended monologues ranging from detached clarity to despair. In this vein, silence is used every bit as effectively as the evocative sound effects. Patrick Clark serves as founder, director, and occasional actor of Shhh! He once lived in Maryland and contributed to the local theatre scene, performing in live theatre productions with Colonial Players, Fell’s Point Corner Theatre, Spotlighters, Vagabond, and more. Regarding “Nothing Behind the Door,” Mr. Clark explained to Maryland Theatre Guide: “We chose to produce this piece because of the amazing voices we had at our disposal and because of the eerie but simple nature of the story. The drama created by the actors and the minimalistic sound effects created an atmospheric episode which it was a joy to produce.”
All three of the dramatic Sonic Summerstock Playhouse productions reviewed here, as well as many others, can be heard here.