REVIEW: Latest Black Box Play A Twisty, Tense, Threatening, Thrilling, Terrific Time
There’s a foreboding line early in the excellent “Murder in Green Meadows” (which concludes its run Saturday at the Black Box Theatre) – “Everything is perfect. What could be wrong?” Well, as we’ll soon learn, quite a lot.
The new production at the Black Box Theatre, 1623 5th Ave., Moline, features a quartet of the Quad-Cities’ most talented, experienced actors in a tense, psychological thriller, and it’s helmed by an enthusiastic, dedicated student director. Even before a line is uttered, the upscale, sophisticated living room set is impressive to behold. I’d love to live there myself – it seems so inviting and comfortable.
But comfortable is something this intense, chilling story is not.
In the intelligent, unpredictable plot, Thomas Devereaux (James Driscoll), a successful architect and local contractor, and his beautiful wife, Joan (Jenny Winn), have just moved into their dream house – literally the subdivision’s “model” home — in the quiet suburban town of Green
Meadows when they are visited by their new neighbors, Carolyn (Lora Adams) and Jeff Symons (Jonathan Grafft), and a friendship develops quickly between the two couples. Jeff brings a bottle of Champagne to celebrate, and Joan is super welcoming, offering them a wide array of foods, even though they just returned from brunch.
The play, penned by Douglas Post, originally received six Emmy Award nominations when presented on TV in 1986 with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. The stage premiere was in Southampton, England in 1992, and the American theatrical premiere was at Chicago’s Victory Gardens in 1995.
Underneath the cool, middle-American exterior, something is truly rotten in Green Meadows, and we first get a glimpse of that when Joan relates a bizarre story of what happened to her childhood collection of dolls, when she was 23. A previous sexual relationship between a married Joan and a teenage lawn-boy is revealed, as is the fact that Thomas learned of the infidelity and may have murdered his wife’s lover.
To make matters worse, an affair has begun to develop between the unbalanced, flighty Joan and the seemingly sensible, no-nonsense Jeff. One summer evening, following the Symons departure after a friendly game of cards, Thomas lets Joan know that he is aware of this new
deception, and his violent, possessive nature surfaces. He makes two demands of his wife: One, she must stop seeing Jeff. Two, she must kill him. So awkward!!!
Before seeing the show, I wondered if it shared similarities with another famous two-couple, nightmarish roller-coaster – the classic dark, bitter drama, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In fact, Driscoll, Grafft and Winn all shared the stage in an extraordinary production of it at the former District in downtown Rock Island in 2016. While Martha is the most monstrous role in that play (Driscoll was her beaten-down spouse George), in “Green Meadows,” it’s the upright, square-jawed, imposing Driscoll who’s most threatening and scary as Thomas.
His explosive arguments with Winn as the cheating Joan are blistering and brutal, and the cynical Thomas coldly invites her to leave at one point.
Though it’s only a single-set piece (tastefully designed by Adams and built by her amazing husband, Michael Kopriva), your interest attention never flags in this perfectly paced production, that leaves you on the edge of your seat. Adams – co-founder, co-owner and frequent director of the Black Box – is a very relatable, sympathetic Carolyn. The climactic, dramatic final scene shows an entirely different, calculating side to Carolyn, and Adams handles it flawlessly.
The same confident attention to detail is displayed by first-time director Jacqueline Isaacson, a junior theater major at Augustana College (from the Rockford area). She’s concentrating in musical theater and women, gender and sexuality studies.
Isaacson costumed the two-person play “I and You” at Black Box in July, and was stage manager for the massive 34-person musical “Newsies” at Countryside Community Theatre this summer, which concluded performances in early August. That was her first time stage managing at all, and they were in rehearsals for nine weeks.
Isaacson saw her first BBT show fall, “Waiting for Godot,” starring Augustana’s Tristan Odenkirk and Peter Alfano.
Adams (a longtime actress and director in the area who works for WQPT) has told Isaacson that she’s not going to be around forever and she needs to think of sustaining BBT long into the future.
“If younger people are interested and they want someone to mentor them, and learn about how you actually run a theater – financially, artistically – then I am very happy to pass that information along and help you on your journey,” Adams said before “Green Meadows” started performances. “When I started, I was only an actor and discovered I had some skills in other areas. Trying to help people understand the joys and pitfalls of trying to keep a theater open, particularly during a pandemic.”
“My whole thing is, I want you to learn it, because I do not want – if I decide to step away, I don’t want the doors to close,” she said. “The whole idea here, from the very beginning, has been open to workshops of new pieces…to be an open space for folks who want to learn. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in having this space – there are a lot of folks who want to do it, who come in and not really understanding what it’s going to take.”
“It’s a boatload of work – it’s a lot of nights sitting at your computer. It’s a lot of nights listening to music,” Adams said about the myriad
details needed to put together a full production, including props, set pieces and sound effects.”
“I love performing, but at the end of the day, somebody has to do the lights; somebody has to do the set,” Isaacson said. “It doesn’t just happen. I’ve always been somebody who loves hard work. I love to be motivated. I chose Augustana because it was an academically difficult school. Acting is difficult in a lot of ways, but this is difficult – in a lot of work you wouldn’t think is theater related.”
“She has a very good, calming way of being a director,” Adams said of her current young boss. “A lot of directors can be autocratic, but that’s not her style. Jacqueline is still learning her style; this is really the first thing she’s directed. But stage management and directing are so close.”
From the new show, you can tell Isaacson has impeccable musical taste, since she chose the intimate, haunting string music for scene changes, which literally sets the scene, and a key bit of music also appears under dialogue at the play’s close. It really ties the production in a neat bow, and it’s a thoughtful gift to all of us.
I also appreciated Adams’ program note in her bio, thanking Kopriva – “husband, carpenter, enabler of dreams.” Thank you, too, Lora, for making this nightmare of a story a dream come true. And keeping this jewel of a theater alive in hard times.
“Murder at Green Meadows” will have its final performances tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $16; for more information, visit theblackboxtheatre.com.