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In his famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, that dithering Dane, Prince Hamlet, chews over what to do about his father’s foul murder until his thoughts are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the fair but emotionally fragile Ophelia — and he abruptly ends this famous monologue with an odd salutation to her: “… Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered.” The phrase “all my sins remembered” came to mind while I watched Stillwater Theatre’s mostly seated — and somewhat static — staged reading of Alex Smith’s macabre new mystery/thriller, The Grinning Man, on Tuesday night in the Studio Theatre of Jones Hall at Meredith College. Stillwater Theatre, which is the Raleigh college’s professional theater company-in-residence, plans to mount a full-scale production of this work-in-progress, starting Sept. 18th. Four months of rewrites may not be enough to transform The Grinning Man into a producible play.
In the audience talkback afterwards, playwright and soon-to-be Clemson University graduate Alex Smith confessed that the inspiration and much of the imagery of The Grinning Man came from American expatriate British poet T.S. Eliot’s bleak 1922 masterpiece “The Waste Land.” The physical and emotional landscape of The Grinning Man is certainly desolate; the play is set in the seedy (pun intended) mom-and-pop flower shop of Gale (Abbey Collins) and Eliot (Jeff Stanley), which has its own ominous ambience a la Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists in the movie and musical Little Shop of Horrors. Only this time the monster is not a mean green mother from Outer Space.
There are a whole passel of skeletons in the family closet shared by Eliot and Gale, so when The Grinning Man (Brian Mullins) arrives at their exotic plant shop, The Phoenician, the couple is ripe (pun intended) for an emotional meltdown. The Grinning Man seems oh-so-familiar but his identity is a mystery, and he seems to know a lot about the private lives of Gale and Eliot, such as where their figurative (and, perhaps, literal) skeletons are buried.
Abbey Collins was good as Gale, a secretive and somewhat scary woman just a blink away from losing it; and Jeff Stanley provided a perfect foil as her uneasy husband/enabler Eliot. Sheryl Scott vividly portrayed Gale’s newly blind best friend Theresa as troubled confidant to whom Gale can unburden her heart. (Dramatist Alex Smith says in The Grinning Man, Theresa — in many ways — performs the role of Tiresias, the blind prophet in Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus the King who sees more than his sighted fellow citizens of Thebes and shocks them by accusing Oedipus of murder.)
Samantha Rahn made the most of her cameo appearance as a little girl named Cynthiah, who cannot be described further without giving important plot points away; and Ashley Phillips read the stage directions crisply and clearly.
At this stage, it is hard to tell whether The Grinning Man will put a smile on the faces of its producers at Stillwater Theatre. There are some chills and thrills that only a fully staged production can deliver. If dramatist Alex Smith and Stillwater Theatre artistic director Steven Roten, who directed this stage reading, can dial up the tension of the play and clarify its allusions and how they apply to the characters, then an evening spent remembering the sins of Gale and Elliot may prove quite satisfying, and Stillwater Theatre’s new mission of producing new works will have a successful maiden voyage this September.