Theater review: ‘Desperate Hours’ Benefits from STC Craftsmanship

Desperate Hours 3If you like old-fashioned suspense Street Theatre Company’s The Desperate Hours might be the ticket for you. The Joseph Hayes story of a family held hostage shows its age at points, but compelling performances, original music scoring and technical elements make this production engaging.

The play, which starred Paul Newman and Karl Malden when it won Tonys for Best Play and Best Direction (by actor/producer/director Robert Montgomery), was adapted by Hayes from his 1954 novel of the same name. Newman wasn’t a bankable film star at the time so Humphrey Bogart got to play the role of fugitive leader Glenn Griffin when the story became a William Wyler-directed feature in 1955 (the play had opened earlier that year).

Director Ryan Williams helms a version that is updated to 1985. His Glenn Griffin (Luke Hatmaker) is still after the same thing, though – he wants to revenge the broken jaw lawman Jesse Bard (Kevin Shell) gave him before he was sent away to prison. Now that’s he’s escaped with his brother Hank (Sean Hills) and fellow convict Samuel Robish (John Mauldin) he wants to have Bard killed before the trio and Glenn’s girlfriend Helen put distance between themselves and their pursuers.

Desperate Hours 2To accomplish his first goal the fugitives take the Hilliard family hostage: first kindly mother Eleanor (Beth Henderson), then sharp-witted daughter Cynthia (Quinn Cooke), headstrong husband Daniel (David Chattam) and assertive youngster Ralph (Isaiah Frank). As the inevitably deteriorating situation plays out, how will this combustible collision of good and bad end – and how far are both protagonists and antagonists willing to go to reach that conclusion?

Even with updated time frame and cultural references parts of the plot – which I won’t divulge here since that would spoil it for those who haven’t seen the tale – are somewhat quaint by 1980s standards, let alone our 2012 perspective on home invasions, hostages and similar crimes. There’s nevertheless a good dose of suspense in this production, and that’s down to some contributions provided by Williams and his colleagues.

Hatmaker is a terrifying Glenn who’s just as believable when he’s tender to his brother Hank. Hills’ Hank shows great sensitivity and anger at the path he’s been forced to go down, while Mauldin’s Robish is a loutish thug that keeps the menace factor ratcheted up whenever he’s onstage.

Desperate Hours 1Chattam handles his character’s conflict between protecting his family and striking out at their tormentors quite deftly, while Henderson handles the fear and resolve of her character with equal adroitness. Cooke and Frank also give well-balanced performances.

Among the law Shell and the singular-named Fiona as FBI Special Agent Harriet Carson turn in crisp performances as they verbally spar with each other. And Shell’s ability to deliver his dialogue in a very naturalistic way makes his words resonate well.

Rollie Mains has composed live scoring for this production that is intense and at times appropriately chilling. Along with fellow musicians Nick Palmer and John Murphy he underscores the mounting tensions between the characters while never intruding on the action; Williams and J.J. Street make sure their music and other sounds are crystal-clear and at the right volume.

Desperate Hours 5Williams’ set, complete with sections of the Hilliard house, sheriff’s office and Daniel Hilliard’s workplace, is detailed and realistic; Steven Steele bathes it in lights that dovetail nicely with each shift in the play’s mood.

Ultimately Street Theatre Company has pulled off The Desperate Hours with some fine craftsmanship. Their efforts take a somewhat dated play and make it palatable for today’s theatergoers.

The Desperate Hours runs through Oct. 28 at Street Theatre Company (1933 Elm Hill Pk.). Tickets ($18 for adults and $16 for students and seniors, along with special offers) and show times are available by calling (615) 554-7414 or visiting www.streettheatrecompany.org.

Desperate Hours 4*Photos by Heavenly Perspective Photography courtesy Street Theatre Company.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).