THE 39 STEPS
When you’re Richard Hannay, a normal night out is anything but. Just consider: You are spending a happy evening in a London theater when you find yourself entangled with a woman who says that she is a spy and that her life is in danger. Before you know it, the lady has been murdered in your flat, and you become the prime suspect.
Now, not only are the police after you, but a strange cabal, sure that you have special information gleaned from Madame X, is also in pursuit. Before you know it, you’re racing across the length and breadth of England and Scotland, fleeing for your life. And then things really start to get interesting.
Such is the nutshell plot of The 39 Steps, opening with a gala performance on Friday, Feb. 26, at the Santa Fe Playhouse. Directed by Barbara Hatch, the play features a foursome of actors — Robyn Rikoon, Kev Smith, Hania Stocker, and Hamilton Turner — who collectively inhabit some 130 roles, and who must move between broad farce and tense suspense at the drop of a hat or a character accent.
Fortunately, those demands are just Hatch’s plate of crumpets. A noted longtime theater and drama teacher, she saw the play on Broadway when teaching high-school theater in Pennington, New Jersey, some years ago — and she took to it at once. “I remember sitting in the seventh or eighth row back with 35 or so students,” she said. “My jaw was open the whole time, and I was thinking, how do they do that? And laughing the entire time.”
So when The 39 Steps turned out to be one of the current- season works for which t he Playhouse requested director proposals, Hatch was eager to make her application to artistic director Vaughn Irving. She had previously directed four scripts that came out of the Playhouse’s playwright competition last fall, so her work was a known quantity — and she was chosen to take on the thriller.
“For these four roles, I think I had about 30 actors audition,” she said. “It’s really hard to cast. You’ve got to have a really tight ensemble. I was able to call back people and mix and match them. I found these wonderful four people. We cast the show just before Christmas. Our first read-through was on Jan. 11. So we’ve been rehearsing six or seven weeks, three to five days and nights a week. Now we go into everynight rehearsals.”
The pedigree of The 39 Steps is almost as involved as the plot. The 2005 script by Patrick Barlow for a production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse was inspired by a 1995 concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, which itself was adapted from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film — which in turn was based on John Buchan’s 1915 novel (which has significant differences from the movie). The play has garnered a plethora of awards, including a 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and a 2008 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience — which makes sense, given those four actors and hundred-plus parts.
Buchan’s novel has no comedic elements. In it, dangerous adventure and scary situations are the
norm. Hitchcock’s adaption, however, has both high and low comedy, Hatch said. “When I rewatched the movie recently, I was struck by how unintentionally funny the film is. It has a very dark, dramatic, nuanced side to it, and everything that is in the film is in the play — the chase in and on the train, the running across the moors, the airplanes coming in. But there are many tongue-in- cheek references to other Hitchcock films.”
The play is very physically demanding, Hatch said. “The actors are all losing weight because they’re working so hard,” including mastering those lightning-fast tweaks to costumes, props, expressions, and accents. “I love quick changes, personally. I love them as an actor, and I love them as a director. We’re working together to find ways to make the changes work. You really have to be very inventive. Every stage, every theater, has its limitations. The Playhouse is a wonderful theater, a wonderful house, but it does have its limitations.
“Changes in front of the audience are where a lot of the humor comes in,” Hatch said. “The audience will see actors do something like five different characters in a three-minute scene. We’ve been doing a lot of work finding different physicalities for different characters.”
Due attention is being paid to differing accents, too. Hatch speaks German, French, and Portuguese, as well as English, so she has been able to help Rikoon with accent development. Irving has also coached the actors. “Richard Hannay, in this production, in the play, is not from Great Britain. He’s from Canada. That makes his job a little bit easier. He’s more or less doing standard American. My theory with accents is, because it’s almost a farce, we’re not looking for exact replicas, but the idea of the accent so that people recognize it. If people are focusing too much on the accent, then they’re losing the character.”
Hatch likes The 39 Steps both as a play to direct, and one to watch when her job as director is over. But her theatrical preferences are broad. “I’ve been discovering — over the past few years, especially — that I really love to direct comedy because it’s so difficult, it’s so specific, and so easily messed up,” she said. “But I love to direct everything. I love to direct Shakespeare. I love the classics — Molière, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams. I will never direct a play that I am not passionate about and that I do not believe fully in. I’ll read a script and I’m drawn to it immediately. Or not.”
Hania Stocker, Robyn Rikoon, Kev Smith, and Hamilton Turner in The 39 Steps; opposite page,
Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat in Hitchcock’s film (top) and on set (bottom);
photo this page Lynn Roylance