Passion becomes obsession very quickly in the latest from Ion Theatre Company, and when it does, it's scary. Not Fatal Attraction scary, but the kind of discomfiture that preys upon you in the dark.
The show is Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion, which opened on Broadway 20 years ago and is only now making its San Diego debut. Even though Passion won the Tony for Best Musical, it's understandable why it ran less than a year on Broadway. Though the story, set in Italy during a time of war in the late 19th century, is, to some degree, a standard-issue love-triangle melodrama, it's chockfull of unsettling desperation. Whatever romance is conveyed in the very opening moments—a tryst between soldier Giorgio (Jason Heil) and his married mistress (Katie Whalley)—is forgotten almost from the instant that sickly Fosca (Sandy Campbell) makes her needy presence felt. That's when the obsession begins, and as the tale unfolds, her obsession becomes Giorgio's, as well.
Ion Theatre has proven itself with dark musicals before: Last year's production of Grey Gardens was one of the year's best. Sondheim's operatic score is earnestly rendered by Passion's large cast, under the direction of Kim Strassburger (piano accompaniment is provided by Mark Danisovszky).
Making her Ion debut, Campbell has the meatiest role, and Fosca seems a strangely haunting bookend to another part Campbell played earlier this year: Lady Macbeth with Intrepid Shakespeare Company. Fosca's is a different shade of madness, though Lapine's narrative questions whether her condition is really starvation for love. Giorgio's transfer of passion from his mistress Clara to Fosca is troubling but inevitable, and Heil is as steady in the role as his wide-eyed character is unsteady. Memorable among the ensemble are Ruff Yeager as Giorgio's colonel and Bryan Banville in dual roles as a soldier and the unscrupulous Ludovic, Fosca's husband in a flashback.
The production is a wearying hour and 45 minutes without intermission, and the love—or obsession—triangle does unfold more slowly than it should. But take note of the Giorgio we see when the play opens and the one on stage at the end. The price of passion will be all too clear.
Passion runs through May 10 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. $33-$39. iontheatre.com
Mud Blue Sky: A teenage pot dealer on his way home from the prom ends up in a Chicago hotel room with three veteran flight attendants in this funny drama about making ends meet. Opens May 2 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando. moxietheatre.com
Suds: The Rocking 60's Musical Soap Opera: The story of a young woman looking for love in a Laundromat frames a soundtrack of '60s hits. Presented by the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, it runs May 1 through 4 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. sandi.net/page/25031
Jungle Book: In San Diego State University's adaptation of the classic story, the adventures of Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo and Shere Kahn are set in a secret jungle in Balboa Park. Through May 4 at SDSU's Don Powell Theatre. theatre.sdsu.edu
Mandate Memories: This is a world premiere of a drama about an elderly Holocaust survivor who pays a visit to a British woman whose father was killed by Jewish terrorists. Through May 4 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
Time and the Conways: This philosophical drama follows a British family from hope in 1919 to desperation in 1937 and then returns to 1919 to show how things started to go wrong. Through May 4 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
To Kill a Mockingbird: The classic drama with the best character names in the history of film or theater: Atticus, Scout, Gem, Dill and Boo. Through May 4 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.com
Things My Mother Taught Me: A comedy about a young couple, who relocate from New York to Chicago and move in together for the first time, and their parents, who show up unexpectedly to help them get settled. Through May 11 at Broadway Theatre in Vista. broadwayvista.com
Water by the Spoonful: The life of an Iraq War veteran intersects with those of four strangers in an Internet chat room for recovering drug addicts. Through May 11 at The Old Globe Theatre. oldglobe.org
Passion: Ion Theatre closes its eighth season with this Stephen Sondheim musical about a 19th-century soldier caught between his affair with a married woman and a mentally troubled woman's love for him. Through May 17 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure: In this adaptation by Steven Dietz, the famous detective is at the end of his career but is drawn into one last case. Through May 18 at Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
Old Jews Telling Jokes: A comedy revue featuring five actors paying homage to classic jokes, inspired by a website of the same name. Through May 25 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. lyceumevents.org
Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story: A musical based on the true 1924 story of two young men who murdered a young boy for the thrill of it. Through May 25 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. diversionary.org
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net