Shadowland Stages’ “The 39 Steps” Reaches New Heights

What good is sitting alone in your room? That’s what Richard Hannay (Eric Bryant) is thinking when he heads out to the theater in Patrick Barlow’s hilarious adaptation of John Buchan’s book “The 39 Steps” made into a film by Hitchcock. It may be a Hitchcock film, but the theater adaptation has overshadowed the illustrious director’s version and become a popular choice for theater companies around the world for the past two decades. I caught it at a sold-out performance in Shadowland Stages Studio Theatre, directed to a fare thee well by Artistic Director Brendan Burke as it starts its closing weekend.

Laura Cable & Eric Bryant/Jeff Knapp

It’s easy to see why theaters and audiences are attracted to this pre-war tale of murder, espionage, and adventure. Hannay is enlisted by a mysterious woman (Laura Cable) at the theater to return to his flat, where she can share her dangerous secrets about the 39 Steps. Before Hannay can grasp what she is saying, she is dead in his apartment by a knife in the back. Two men (Andy McCain & Jessica López-Barkl) are watching the apartment from under a lamp post on the corner. Hannay must escape, buying his disguise from a milkman on the street outside his house and racing to the train to take him to the Scottish Highlands following the clues the dying woman gave him in town. Spiking the dialogue and soundtrack must be a dozen references to Hitchcock movies. There are probably more, and I’m sure I missed a few as the pace of the play was so fast.

Jessica López-Barkl, Laura Cable, Eric Bryant & Andy McCain/Jeff Knapp

All of these locations: the apartment, theater, his neighborhood, the train, and the Scottish countryside are all created by the cast with two trunks, minimal furniture, and maximum invention. The two men on the corner are listed as clowns, and they play everyone that Hannay encounters on his mysterious adventure. The emcee in the theater, the mentalist act, the milkman, the lingerie salesman he meets on the train, and the rest of the cast list. In Hannay’s travels, Laura Cable will return as another love interest or two.

“The 39 Steps” relies on quick change invention, and Shadowland Stage has it down. On the train, a scene develops between Hannay, the salesmen, a policeman, and a newsboy. They all overlap dialogue and exchange hats as they greet each other with single lines of dialogue, switching hats for each encounter. Doors become entrances to rooms from the hall and cinematically rotate to give us the perspective of the guest entering the room. Characters climb through windows holding the frame above their heads and bringing their body through it as if they were gowns to be slipped in and out of. Best of all is a thrilling chase on top of the train as Hannay and his pursuer create a breathless action scene on top of two steamer trunks.

Eric Bryant & Laura Cable/Jeff Knapp

Stellar technical support is supplied by Technical Director Peter Johnson, Stage Management by Nicole Caroselli, Sound Design by Jeff Knapp, Lighting Design by Jeremy Johnson, and Costume Design by Christina English.

I’ve seen this play a few times, and what truly makes this one special is the breakneck pace Burke puts his company through, the very limited and perfectly chosen prop and set choices, and the really great casting. All four actors fit their parts impeccably and hurl themselves heedlessly into the fun of creating this epic comic story.

Sitting alone in his room, Hannay yearns for something mindless and trivial and responds to himself, “I know! A trip to the theater.” Boy, is he wrong? Anything filled with so much love, sweat, and tears is anything but trivial. There are a few tickets left this weekend. I guarantee you a good time.

“The 39 Steps” runs through Sunday, 7/9 at Shadowland Stages. Tickets:

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