Oct. 27 2010 10:18 AM

Sparse staging and assured direction mark Ion Theatre Company's Jekyll and Hyde

Henry Jekyll (Walter Ritter) is squarely in evil’s line of fire as Poole (Susan Hammons, left) and Elizabeth (Rachael VanWormer) stare him down.
While all those ivory-towered Victorian social scientists were tripping over their bloated theories about man's capacity for good and evil, hardscrabble Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson was cutting to the chase with Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the 1886 novella that would end the debate, at least for his fans. The plot centers on Henry Jekyll, a doc who sought to separate himself from his darker impulses through a series of experiments with potions and ends up morphing into the murderous, conscience-free Edward Hyde. There's tremendous good and evil in all of us, Stevenson seems to say—and the more our dark side is submerged, the blacker it becomes.

There's a terrible musical out there called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Jekyll breaks equipment and yells and jumps around a lot—and that's why it's so cool that Jeffrey Hatcher, who knows a thing about stage adaptations (The Tuof the Screw, Tuesdays with Morrie), has saved the day with his own educated take on the story.

It's cooler still that Ion Theatre Company, San Diego's go-to group for pieces on our lower angels, has turned it out with such excellence, relying on little more than faith in its hard-core personnel. There's not a test tube in sight on the tiny stage, not even a simple bed to suggest Hyde's infatuation with a chambermaid—a door, a gurney, a few props and some outstanding music beds are all that color the raw tension between Hank and Ed, with no one the winner.

In this case, four Hydes play doppelganger to the ambivalent Jekyll (which Stevenson pronounced “Jeekil”) as Hatcher seeks new dimensions to the doctor's nastier side. Utterson the lawyer (Nick Kennedy); Poole, Jekyll's manservant (Susan Hammons); Dr. Lanyon (Patrick Duffy); Sir Danvers Carew (the acclaimed David McBean): they all bring Hyde's baseness to bear, dogging Jekyll (Walter Ritter) at every turn and illustrating the multiple personalities that drive this calculating fiend.

For us, the beauty to this approach lies in Kim Strassburger's direction. At no time, not for a single second, does one performance overarch another, and Strassburger's use of the stage in developing the characters makes the space seem twice its size. This is some of the most assured direction I've recently seen; presumably, a portion of the credit goes to assistant helmer Jordan Bunshaft.

The show isn't without bare spots. Hatcher's people could use more monologues on the philosophical differences between good and evil; Rachael VanWormer needs more worldliness behind her chambermaid Elizabeth Jelkes; and Duffy's Scots brogue often manages to lapse into an Italian accent. But if the play isn't perfect, neither is man—and Strassburger and Ion make that plain in a most intriguing fashion.

This review is based on the opening-day matinee of Oct. 23. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde runs through Nov. 20 at BLK BOX @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest. $21-$25. iontheatre.com. Write to marty@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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