The question presents itself: Does V.C. Andrews’ wildly popular Gothic horror novel transform well into spine-tingling theater?
All begins well enough. Ominous music; a cramped, eerie attic; a key is turned; a room is prepared — but for what? A creepy sense of foreboding builds.
The story, akin to something by Stephen King at his most disturbed, is overwrought, with much of the first portion of the play taken up by establishing a complex backstory.
Suffice it to say that four golden children, Chris (Levi Hood), his younger sister Cathy (Kali Russell), and the even younger twins Cory (Edward Boudreaux IV) and Carrie (Daisey Mackey) are to be locked in this sinister attic under the watch of their terrifying grandmother, Olivia (Mary Pauley).
Their mother, Corrine (Rebecca Hollingsworth), destitute due to a family tragedy, concocts a desperate plot to secure an inheritance from her wealthy, dying father. But Dad will leave Corrine penniless if he finds out about these children, incestuously conceived.
“God sees everything! God will see the evil you do behind my back!” warns Grandma, who already believes the children and their mother are condemned to hell for violation of that fundamental taboo.
At first, the attic hideaway is like a game, but time passes and what was to be a brief concealment turns into a lengthy nightmare. The children are progressively tortured by both adults: abused, abandoned, starved, poisoned.
“I thought this life would be like a perfect summer day,” speaks a narrating character that we learn is an older Cathy (Jen Pagan). “At least, it started that way.”
Here is part of the adaptation’s problem. Too much material and description is delivered by our narrator. Prose communicates with words, but drama thrives on action. Try as they might, Pagan, Neiderman, and Bentivegna fail to make these long narrative passages active.
Many significant facts stray from the original plot. In the novel, Cathy is 12 and Christopher 14. Neiderman pushes Cathy’s age to 16, appreciably altering the nature of the illicit passion developing between brother and sister.
Time is strangely compressed. Years of incarceration in the book, here become mere months — thereby lessening the actors’ ability to reveal the effects of puberty as well as those of long-term captivity.
Least successful is an offstage scene where the children observe a Christmas party presented via a graceless voiceover, leaving Pagen alone on stage, awkwardly forsaken.
Bentivegna, whose blocking could stand to use the space in more interesting and dynamic ways, is at his directorial best with his haunting musical accompaniments.
Hollingsworth excels, completely immersing herself in the role of Corrine, ranging from simple delusion to full-on lunacy, climaxing when she announces a hasty remarriage that deserts the children even further.
Pauly’s performance is a full-throttle embodiment of evil — never more horrifying than when, brandishing a pair of scissors, she forces Cathy to cut off her hair.
Mackey and Boudreaux, both appropriately precocious and adorable, subtly morph from being siblings to essentially becoming Chris and Cathy’s children.
The chemistry of Hood and Russell is palpable, as evidenced by their unvarnished commitment to the escalating sexual tension between them. Their erotic dance at the end of the first act pushes all the right buttons.
However, hostage drama is tricky stuff. Hostage drama laced with teen sexuality is trickier yet. Over the course of their three-week run, the actors will certainly deepen their connection to these sordid circumstances and the scenes will find more detailed transition.
Andrews’ novel was banned from some school libraries.
As the play version progresses, perhaps it, too, may attain such a scandalous level of shock. But as it is, everything is just a little too soft-pedaled.