Charlene Baldridge | SDCNN Theater Critic
Familiarity with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film is not a prerequisite, but it deepens one’s appreciation of Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation, actually a spoof of “The 39 Steps,” which was quite the serious spy thriller. The production is seen at Lamb’s Players Theatre through September 22.
When he was interviewed earlier this year regarding “The 39 Steps,” Lamb’s Artistic Director Robert Smyth could barely hide his longing to be one of the show’s four actors. One assumes he succumbed to some gentle arm-twisting on the part of his wife, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who is the director. Robert Smyth plays Clown #2. Others in the company are David S. Humphrey, the sole actor who plays only one character, protagonist Richard Hannay; Kelsey Venter, who portrays three women, Annabella, Pamela and Margaret; and Jesse Abeel, who is Clown #1. The clowns get a huge workout, changing characters with the change of a hat before the audience’s eyes. Robert Smyth, who joined Lamb’s in 1979, is quite obviously having the time of his life, and so is Abeel, by now a Lamb’s veteran of several years’ worth of truly memorable performances. He possesses the sort of facility, versatility and depth that make an actor valuable to a repertory company and to the community.
The same could be said of Venter, whose Lamb’s roles include Sarah in “Guys and Dolls” and Sarah in “Trying.” Humphrey’s numerous Lamb’s credits include “1776” and “The Secret Garden.”
The August 21 audience had a rip-roaring good time. What appears easy is timed to the nth, and all is expertly done here, abetted by Jemima Dutra’s costumes, Nathan Peirson’s lighting, Michael McKeon’s set and properties, and Deborah Gilmore Smyth’s sound design based on the original design by Mic Pool.
Richard Hannay is an ex-pat Canadian, a lonely 37-year-old bachelor living in London. He goes to the theater and becomes the unwitting target of an international spy ring because he harbors an opposing spy named Annabella (Venter), who is murdered by two men (Abeel and Robert Smyth). Hannay flees, in pursuit of clues given him by the doomed woman. Venter’s other characters are a kindly farmer’s wife and a sophisticated blond named Pamela, who blows the whistle on Hannay not once but twice before discovering he’s not really Annabella’s murderer. He is telling the truth about the sinister 39 Steps spy ring, which is trying to kill him and smuggle secrets out of the country.
Abeel and Robert Smyth portray a host of farmers, hoteliers, policemen and spies. Hannay, a fast thinker and long-distance runner, eludes the opposition repeatedly, even while famously handcuffed to Pamela, with whom he falls in love. Eventually, the feeling is mutual.
Barlow’s clever dialogue and projections include references to other Hitchcock films. Deborah Smyth’s direction showcases her company’s talents beautifully. The secret is staging maximum effect with a minimum of visible effort as well as few accoutrements: trunks, a few ladders, odd pieces of furniture, a lamppost, and human torsos that become the landscape of Scotland.
“The 39 Steps” continues in Lamb’s Players, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, with matinees at 4 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22-$52. Visit lambsplayers.org or call 619-437-6000.
Charlene Baldridge moved to San Diego from the Chicago area in 1962. She’s been writing about the arts since 1979, and has had her features, critiques, surveys and interviews included in various publications ever since. Her book San Diego, Jewel of the California Coast (Northland Publishing) is currently available in bookstores. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.