Through April 13
Shakespeare Theatre Company
The Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th Street, NW
Conventional wisdom says don’t mess with a classic. Typically the result is a letdown. But there are exceptions. Case in point is the UK-based Kneehigh Theatre’s delightful production of “Brief Encounter,” an adaptation of the same-named 1945 British film.
In bringing the iconic screen romance to the stage, director/playwright Emma Rice blends theater and film incorporating projections, musical numbers and myriad clever touches, all now on display at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre.
The David Lean film is based on Noël Coward’s “Still Life,” one of many plays the gay sophisticate wrote and performed with longtime pal Gertrude Lawrence. It follows the short-lived romance of two married people who meet cute at a train station when Alec, a handsome doctor, removes a cinder from housewife Laura’s eye. The pair begin meeting weekly, mostly in the station tearoom or restaurants, and though their feelings are intense, their relationship remains chaste, never going beyond a kiss. And while the inevitable return to their respective respectable lives and practical mates happens as expected, it’s still a painful outcome. Rice’s adaptation draws from the film and the play.
The action kicks off in the Lansburgh lobby with a zippy string quartet of cast members dressed as ‘40s movie theater ushers performing a selection of vintage tunes. Inside, the stage’s usual curtain has been swapped out for one that’s brighter and redder, reminiscent of those found in old movie palaces. There’s a big movie screen that plays black-and-white footage, a nod to the source film and an exploration of the protagonists’ experience. When not on stage, Alec (Jim Sturgeon) and Laura (Hannah Yelland in her Tony-nominated role from when the show ran on Broadway in 2010) can sometimes be found seated amongst the audience; after all, their first date was a trip to the cinema. They also may slip through a slit in the movie screen only to reappear as bigger-than-life projections.
While meeting in public, the pair is reserved. Their muted passion is represented by film of fast moving clouds and raging tides. As the romantic tension mounts, Laura begins to grapple with doing the right thing. It’s she who suggests they part ways.
Director Emma Rice’s precise and inventive staging is wondrous, the cast is superb and her team’s spectacular technical, multi-media design is top notch. Neil Murray’s set is ingeniously serviceable and his period costumes are impeccably drawn. As the besotted but staid lovers, Yelland and Sturgeon play it straight, never mocking the necessarily formal dialogue. But the supporting ensemble has no such restraints. They’re free to camp it up and play for laughs, and they do, expertly. It’s an effective balance.
The tearoom’s other regulars are its manager Myrtle (Annette McLauglin), an amusingly genteel type whose breaks are spent trysting with the amorous station manager Fred (Joe Alessi); and Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson), a cheeky waitress who is dating the cute young station snack seller, Stanley (Damon Daunno). The cast play multiple parts and along with Dave Brown and James Gow, they also sing and play instruments. Songs include Coward’s “Mad About the Boy,” “A Room with a View,” and melodic original music.
The music is put to especially good effect with another Coward song, “Go Slow, Johnny” sung poignantly by Daunno during a key scene in which the Alec and Laura are alone drying off after having fallen out of a rowboat.
Most of the play takes place in the train station. Not surprisingly, there’s a moment when it seems that Laura might throw herself on the tracks and end it all. But no, she’s too sensible for that. Instead, she returns home (two leather club chairs and a big radio) where her patient husband (Alessi, again) and young son and daughter (a pair of life-sized puppets) are waiting.
“Brief Encounter” is part of the really terrific STC Presentation whose mission is to present world class international productions to D.C. audiences. This memorable production is a testament to both the vibrancy of theater and Coward’s enduring genius.