Every kind of storytelling implies a connection between the audience and the people in the story, good or bad. Hitchcock was a master of making the audience complicit in his killers’ crimes, and every heist movie you’ve ever seen has made you sweat for the bad guys, wondering if they’d pull off their complex capers. This phenomenon, related to the willing suspension of disbelief and the whole process of just following a narrative, is crucial to Veronica’s Room, now playing in revival at the Underground Theater in Hollywood (thanks to the talented folks at The Visceral Company). What is “really happening” vs. what is “only a fantasy” in the context of a completely fictional story? That’s a key idea for playwright Ira Levin (ROSEMARY’S BABY, DEATHTRAP, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, THE STEPFORD WIVES), and it’s one that director Dan Spurgeon (GHOST LIGHT, THE TURN OF THE SCREW) and the cast deftly explore in this solid 40th anniversary production.
We open in hip, contemporary 1973 Boston, where a liberated young woman (Amelia Gotham, whose performance builds in strength throughout) and her skeptical date (Mark Souza, playing his role with welcome subtlety) agree to help a kindly old Irish couple (Karen Kahler and Patrick Skelton, both strong and assured) with a very important charade. There’s a dying woman in their house who needs a visit from someone long gone—Veronica, dead since the 1930s—and the young lady looks just like her. Would she be willing to help them out by impersonating Veronica, just this once, to make death a little more merciful? When the young woman agrees to their strange request, that’s when everything begins to slide into nightmare territory.
One of the harder things an actor can do is to play older than they actually are—which every person in this cast does throughout the show, and does well. But another challenge is to play a period character and emphasize character over period—to indicate personality first, and historicity second. It’s always tempting for actors to present themselves primarily as “someone from 1973” and secondarily as “this human being.” There are a few bobbles in Veronica’s Room at the start, most of them prompted by cues in Levin’s script. But by the end of the show, all the actors are working from a position of authority and emotional strength.
As with all Visceral Company productions, there is no intermission (clearly because this would break tension in the play). Unlike most VC shows, there isn’t much room for sophisticated sound design here, but what is there is good. All the production details are just right—lighting by Dave Sousa, scenic design by Mary Hamrick, costumes and makeup/hair by Erica D. Schwartz and Natalee Castillo, respectively. And though the audience can’t really see it, it certainly appears that offstage unsung heroes Drew Blakeman (producer and Visceral Company co-founder) and Rosie and Susie Santilena (stage managers) have done their jobs well, too.
Veronica’s Room is a tightly constructed, fast-moving thriller that calls into question reality, catharsis and narrative flow. It’s got some nicely uncomfortable moments, as a good dark story should (don’t bring the kids or grandma and grandpa, folks), and you won’t soon forget the way Visceral Company brings it to life on the stage. Take in this twisted tale at the Underground Theater in Hollywood on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., now through March 30. Learn more at www.thevisceralcompany.com.