Twenty years ago, I took a trip by train from Colorado to Oregon. One night, I sat in a dining car with a lovely woman who told me, among many things, her life story and the horrifying ordeal her son had suffered while undergoing a fraternity hazing. I don’t remember the woman’s name but I’ve never forgotten her and how, in our random pairing while sharing a dinner table, she bared hidden truths with me as we traveled across the country. Whether she trusted me or simply took advantage of how she could tell a random traveler her secrets (or both), I’ll never know. The next morning, I saw her a brief moment before she departed the locomotive and she was out of my life forever.
The thrill of anonymity during traveling, making conversation with a total stranger and establishing a brief but potent connection, is the inciting incident of “Strangers on a Train,” the new production that just opened at the ProArts Theater. Skillfully helmed by director Tina Kailiponli, this is an eerie, involving thriller, distinguished by excellent performances and a headfirst exploration of unsettling material.
The friendly but timid Guy Haines (played by a well cast Jefferson K. Davis) meets the charismatic and vaguely sinister Charles Bruno (played by Geronimo Son, positively mesmerizing) while taking a train trip; the two share an unguarded conversation, which leads to a hypothetical suggestion that they should swap murders, eliminating the individuals in their lives who are a nuisance. Why? Because you’d throw off the authorities by randomly killing someone with no prior connection. While Guy finds this suggestion sort of amusing, his companion isn’t kidding around…
“Strangers on a Train” was originally a novel by Patricia Highsmith, published in 1950, while the famous Alfred Hitchcock-directed film adaptation arrived a year later. For those who are seeing this with either a fondness or a faint memory of the movie, its best to put it out of your mind and enter the ProArts Theater with a clean mental slate. To be blunt- forget the Hitchcock film, as this is a different thing altogether. Whereas the Hitchcock classic is defined by its droll humor, bravura set pieces and a legendary performance by Robert Walker, the stage adaptation remains firmly at the psychological level.
Playing the gregarious Charles, Son is outstanding in the role; his presence is so strong and his way with the role so intriguing, the audience audibly expressed unease when he would enter a scene. The character of Charles is a alcoholic, making his constant drunkenness the only factor that somewhat conceals how dangerous he is. Son suggests layers of longing and hurt, as the script and his performance keep the audience riveted by what is suggested and not clearly stated. Davis is an able co-star and is especially effective when conveying his character’s steadily mounting anguish and guilt.
As strong as Son and Davis are together, the actors are even better when paired with their female co-stars: Ann Marie Wilder, stylish and endearing as Charles’s mother, and Megan Caccamo, simply excellent playing Guy’s fiancée, have considerable chemistry with Son and Davis and offer some of the play’s finest, most searing sequences. David Belew has some strong moments during the second act and I liked the sharp character work by Michael Enovijas and Kiegan Otterson in supporting turns.
A visual connection to the film is made through the deceptively simple set design by Kailiponi and Keith Welch: rather than provide detailed sets, most scenes have effective but scant decoration and are framed by grey set blocks. The grey washes out the color palette in the same way black and white does for cinema- by eliminating specific set details and excess color (though, it should be noted, Kathleen Gregory’s costumes are lovely), the emphasis is, instead, placed on character and theme. Ricky Pavao Jones’ wonderful lighting design not only creates the visuals needed to evoke a train in motion but, in a subtle, sinister way, shifts into dark reds during moments where inner darkness plagues the characters.
The story develops in ways that are intriguing and sometimes painful. In truth, this isn’t a lot like the Hitchcock film but Charles has much in common with another Highsmith character: Tom Ripley, as the “talented” Mr. Ripley’s psychological and barely concealed sexual obsession with the ill-fated “Dickie Greenleaf” is mirrored here in Charles’s grand, unceasing affection for Guy. Gay subject matter, overt and/or suggested, has always been a hallmark of Highsmith’s work; as presented here, with restraint but out-in-the-open clarity, “Strangers on a Train” is a dark love story as much as it is a slow burn suspense generator. Thinking about the play now, I find it troubling and bold. Kailiponi and her cast have gone all-in with their willingness to illuminate the dark shadows within the fractured souls of these characters. It may not be a feel-good play but its finest scenes are undeniably powerful. At the very least, it made me decide to not be so friendly the next time I share a night flight window seat with some stranger.
Strangers on a Train runs until September 29th. Tickets are available at www.proartsmaui.com or by calling 463-6550.