Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2006

By all reports Mill City Productions, the North Adams-based community theatre group started two years ago by alumni of the Drury Drama Team, is going great guns. For this, their third production of 2006, they are performing at Main Street Stage as part of a new collaboration with that company. This is a good thing because two companies presenting in a space can logically generate about twice as much live theatre on Main Street in North Adams, a great boost for the city’s continuing renaissance.

Mill City does not pretend to be anything other than a community theatre company, and that is central to its current success. We have plenty of professional theatre in this region, but very few opportunities for average folks to get up and perform. Last week I wrote about Town Players long history doing just that for central Berkshire, and Mill City is following their good example by producing unpretentious theatre of the people and for the people.

This Halloween season they are staging two one-act melodramas by Lucille Fletcher – Sorry, Wrong Number and The Hitchhiker – both directed by the husband and wife team of Liz Urban and Tim Mangun. Fletcher (1912-2000) was a successful novelist and playwright. These two works, arguably her most well-known today, both started life as radio dramas, which accounts for their brief running time (about 25 minutes each) and the fact that Sorry, Wrong Number in particular loses much of its suspense when translated to the stage.

Sorry, Wrong Number which starred Agnes Moorhead in its original 1943 radio incarnation and Barbara Stanwyck in its 1948 Oscar-nominated film version, tells the story of a wealthy bed-ridden hypochondriac who overhears two men (Mark Weimer and Joshua Bishoff) plotting a murder while trying to call her husband at the office. Alone and given to nerves, Mrs. Stevenson (Stephanie Mayer) uses the phone by her bed as her life-line, dickering with endless operators (Jody A. Kordana, Isa St. Clair, Beth Kozik, Lauren Skiffington, and Staci Downey), a nurse (Marissa Carlson), a Western Union representative (Mike Grogan), and a disinterested desk sargeant (Edward Cating) in her quest to report the murder plot and seek assistance as she becomes more and more convinced that she is the person about to be killed.

The problem with this stage version is that you see all these people. Mrs. Stevenson is never alone on the stage, and therefore the suspense built hearing nothing but a series of disembodied voices is completely lost. Urban and Mangun have done a great job of giving each actor, no matter how small the role, a very clear character to play, which is good for them but only further distracts from any build-up of suspense. Mayer plays Mrs. Stevenson as an unsympathetic caricature of a pampered rich woman, so the audience doesn’t care very much what ultimately happens to her.

Another strike against any thrills that might be had from this play is its familiarity. I would bet that everyone over 25 has seen, read, or heard this story before, and knows exactly how it ends. A fun and little known aside to this familiar tale is that Fletcher wrote it to get revenge on a wealthy woman who treated her badly one day at the pharmacy. She was so annoyed by the woman’s rudeness that she went home and plotted a scheme to bump her off, if only fictionally, and was rewarded with the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award!

The Hitchhiker was also inspired by a real-life adventure Fletcher had driving across country with her first husband, composer Bernard Herrmann. This script was originally written for Orson Welle’s Mercury Radio Theatre in 1941, and makes a much smoother transition to the stage, especially as anchored here by Joshua Sprague’s chilling performance in the central role of Ronald Adams.

Adams takes off on a cross-country drive in his Buick. After bidding adieu to his mother (Lauren Forbes) he becomes obsessed with a male hitchhiker (Cating) he seems to encounter repeatedly during his travels. Along the way he has brief and increasingly bizarre encounters with a filling station attendant (Grogan), the proprietor (Weimer) of a roadside restaurant and his wife (Jackie DeGiorgis) who Adams rudely awakens from their slumbers, and a female hitchhiker (Kozik) to whom he gives a short-lived lift. A desperate call home brings him in contact with an officious phone operator (Samantha Therrien) and a mysterious Mrs. Whitney (Carlson) who answers his mother’s phone.

The entire piece is narrated by Adams, sometimes live and sometimes in a recorded voice-over. The uncredited sound design was flawless here, where it had been annoyingly loud and phony-sounding during Sorry, Wrong Number.

Sprague played Adams’ disintegration into madness (or is it?) smoothly and convincingly. Having seen him before only in cheerful cartoony roles (he played Snoopy in Mill City’s production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Ugly in Honk!) I was delighted to see his range as he played an unshaven, wild-eyed man gripped by the terrifying fear that he is losing, has lost, will never regain his sanity.

Cating is also strong in the largely silent title role, performing interesting bits of blocking that really give the illusion of Sprague being in a moving vehicle. Kozik also gives a solid turn as the initially flirtatious and ultimately terrified female hitchhiker.

Weimer and DeGiorgis are hilarious as the fashion-challenged restaurateurs who need every wink of beauty sleep they can get. But while I laughed at the actors good-humored willingness to appear on stage in thoroughly unbecoming attire, the humor was misplaced and distracted from the suspense that was building so nicely.

Grogan is very enjoyable in all the small parts he tackles in both plays. He gets the one really well-earned laugh of the evening when his filling station attendant not only pumps the gas and offers to check Adams’ oil, but then charges him a whopping $1.49 (including tax) for a tank of gas! There is a lot of fun to be had today from Fletcher’s clear depiction of the now-antique technology of the dial telephone system and the actual human operators who relayed the calls, and the joys and hazards of driving across the continent in the days before the interstate highway system was in place.

Many of the other bit players here – Downey, Carlson, Bishoff, Therrien, and Skiffington – are staples of the northern Berkshire community theatre scene, and can be counted on to deliver strong and enjoyable performances. Cating is a welcome addition to their number.

The sets are minimal, the costumes are adequate, the lighting is smooth and professional, and the sound design, as mentioned previously, is better in the second play than in the first. It is fun to listen to Herrmann’s spooky music composed to accompany his wife’s work which is played throughout the evening.

The audience I attended with had great good fun watching their friends and neighbors up on stage, as I did too. I am looking forward to the continued collaboration between Mill City and Main Street Stage. Perhaps there will come a time when you can attend a different show on Main Street every month of the year?

Sorry, Wrong Number and The Hitchhiker will be performed at Main Street Stage in North Adams Thursday and Friday, Oct. 26 and 27, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 29, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday, Oct. 31, at 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, Nov. 3 and 4, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 5, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for students. Each show runs about 25 minutes with a 15 minute intermission between them for a total run of about an hour and ten minutes. There is no overt violence here, so these plays can be enjoyed by children 8 and older. For more information visit the Mill City Productions Web site.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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