THE 39 STEPSAdapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan
Garland Civic Theatre
Director – Josh Hensley
Stage Manager – Camila Fonseca
Costumes – Chelsea Prettyman
Stage hand – Brandon Jennings
Stage hand – José Mendoza
Light Board Operator – Matt Walker
Lighting Designer – Hank Baldree
Richard Hannay – Tucker Souther
Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret – Marsella Palmer
Clown 1 (and others) – Brian Hokanson
Clown 2 (and others) – Debbie Fu
Reviewed Performance: 10/21/2018
Reviewed by Kathleen Morgan, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Loosely based on a novel by Patrick Barlow, The 39 Steps is most well known for being a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. The British Film Institute ranked it the fourth best British film of the 20th century, and later gave it the #2 spot in best book-to-film adaptations of all time! In fact, screenwriter Robert Towne is known to have said, “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps.” It’s astonishing to me that a story famous as a thriller fares just as well (if not better) as a comedy. A first comedy adaptation was created for the stage in 1995 and the version we have today was written by Patrick Barlow in 2005.
Director Josh Hensley’s perfect execution of the physical comedy in this show is the thing I keep coming back to over and over again. No movement or moment was wasted. My first impression of this was in an early scene where Richard Hannay (Tucker Souther) peered out his window to see if two suspicious-looking men were lurking outside his flat. Each time Hannay pulled back the curtain, two mean-looking characters wheeled out a lamppost and crouched around it menacingly. This occurred several times, each appearance delighting the audience just as much as the first. Another spellbinding moment occurred when Hannay was escaping from authorities by climbing out of a train window. With almost no set or prop to indicate he was climbing on a train, Hannay perfectly pantomimed this action along with the other characters, and each one used one hand to flap their hair or clothing to indicate the wind whipping by. The effect was mesmerizing- not only because it absolutely worked, but also because the creativity and coordination astonished me. Hensley’s attention to detail as well as the energy of the actors created such an incredibly engaging show.
Tucker Souther’s Richard Hannay was everything a young debonair man on the run should be. Confident and daring, his passion for his mission was just as strong as his passion for each new woman with whom he crossed paths. His “dark, wavy hair, piercing blue eyes, and a very attractive pencil moustache” suit his character perfectly, but isn’t enough to get him out of many a near scrape. The women he meets along the way help him in these near brushes with the authorities and even death. Souther’s commanding deep voice, precision with physicality, and strong stage presence made him a fun and thrilling character to watch.
Marsella Palmer entertained the audience as both Anabella Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret. As Schmidt, she was the mysterious German femme fatale who convinced Hannay to see her mission through to the end. Her character worked, although sometimes Palmer’s feigned German accent was such that it was very challenging to understand her. However, Palmer’s portrayal of Pamela was fierce and energetic. Despite being literally chained to his side at times, Pamela never for a moment gave the impression that she was going to follow along some man in his mysterious (and sketchy) quest. Full of confidence and vigor, Palmer’s character ended up being just as central to the pair’s safety as Richard Hannay. As the show progressed, Palmer did a fine job in melting Pamela’s frustration and defiance into something more tender- though never weaker. My jaw dropped to the floor when I read that Marsella Palmer is a current high school student! What a marvelous and mature performance, especially for so young an actress.
Finally, stealing the show and mastering dozens of characters to boot, Brian Hokanson and Debbie Fu played “the clowns.” Their many and wildly varied characters included surly thugs, police officers, lingerie salesmen, a Scottish innkeeper couple, a professor and his wife, and of course, Mr. Memory and his assistant. These two were non-stop and never missed a beat despite their many back-to-back shifts in character. Oftentimes merely a change in headwear would serve as a new costume, but both Hokanson and Fu transformed with each shift. Fu excelled at both her male and female characters and nailed her Scottish accent- a considerable feat for any actor. However, she often spoke so quickly (particularly in the role of Mr. Memory) that I had difficulty making out her speech. Nevertheless, Fu’s mastery of her extensive dialogue and tireless energy was astonishing.
I was particularly impressed with Brian Hokanson. When watching him portray female characters, I instantly felt like I was watching a sketch from Monty Python with the way he’d throw his voice in the most ridiculous way. His character transitions were particularly crisp- the changes in gait, accent, and everything in between were without fault. Hokanson’s portrayal of the professor- and older, menacing man in a smoking jacket- was especially memorable for its venom.
True to form, the set and props for The 39 Steps was fun, simple, and –you guessed it- creative. Although the set was not elaborate, it was not lacking in any way. A certain simplicity was required for all the many changes of scenery. For indoor scenes, a couch, table, and window on wheels was all that was required to make you feel you were in one’s home. Scenes on the train were captured with the characters sitting on trunks, facing each other. The actors easily provided whatever else was necessary to fill out the surroundings. I very much enjoy the fact that this show doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that was made evident in the scenes where the actors were “assembling” a car comprised of several chairs and flashlights. The lighting for this show was equally well-done. In yet another creative scene, the cast and crew made use of shadow work while Hannay was being pursued by airplanes, bringing an element of fresh variety.
The 39 Steps was just pure, lighthearted fun. The fast pace, the constant gags, and the chemistry between all of the actors melded together so perfectly. The actors had so many character and scene changes to manage, but they pulled it off without a hitch. Check out this show for a few hours of nonstop, delightful entertainment!
Garland Civic Theatre
October 19 – November 4th, Friday through Sunday
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2:30pm
Granville Arts Center - 300 North 5th St., Garland, TX
To purchase tickets, visit the box office, or purchase online at the Granville Arts Center website
Tickets: $18/ $13 for groups of 10 or more / $10 for student rush