By Ellen Wilson Dilks
Playcrafters of Skippack continues their current season with a production of a little-done Alan Ayckbourn: Snake In The Grass. Directed by Greg Kasander, the play runs in the company’s quaint barn venue from now through September 2, 2017.
Snake In the Grass was written in 2002 by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. The play tells the story of the Chester sisters: Annabel, who left home many years ago, and Miriam who stayed and cared for their father in his final years. It was written as a female companion piece to the 1994 ghost play Haunting Julia. In 2008, these two plays, together with a new play, Life and Beth, were folded into a trilogy named Things That Go Bump.
The original production of Snake In The Grass was at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, with the first performance on May 30, 2002, and an opening night on June 5 of that year. The theatre staged a revival in 2008, mounting the entire trilogy. Since 2002, the play has had six professional productions, and has become one of the most frequently performed Ayckbourn plays. Its American premiere was in 2005 at the Black River Playhouse in Chester, NJ. The play has also been particularly popular with amateur groups.
A prolific playwright and director, Ayckbourn has written and produced more than seventy full-length plays. Ayckbourn was often referred to as Britain’s “Neil Simon.” His first work, Relatively Speaking opened in 1969. More than 40 plays have subsequently been produced in London’s West End, at the Royal National Theatre or by the Royal Shakespeare Company. His plays have won numerous awards, and have been translated into over 35 languages. There have been numerous productions staged throughout the world. Ten of his plays have been on Broadway, attracting two Tony nominations, and one Tony Award.
Playcrafters production is taut, holding the audience’s attention throughout. Solid performances are delivered by the three actresses as they take us on the twists and turns of the story, revealing family secrets along the way. Lisa Gazzillo plays oldest sister, Annabel, who left home at a young age to escape her father’s taunting. Now divorced, she has returned following his death; she is not in the best of health herself; a recovering alcoholic, she suffers from a heart condition. Gazzillo’s character has the most difficult emotional arc (as well as the task of conveying Annabel’s illness), and she handles it well. She is adept at the bits of comedy splashed throughout as well as the character’s being overwhelmed by the whole situation. Younger sister, Miriam, has been stuck at home caring for their father throughout his long illness. Ann Kashishian slowly unfolds a character who is deeply emotionally disturbed in a nicely calibrated performance. Finally, there is Alice Moody, a nurse who cared for the father and is now attempting to extort money from the estate as revenge for her firing. Teri Maxwell does a lovely job of portraying a smug conniver, sashaying around the stage, oozing Southern charm.
On the technical side, Ryan Kadwill and “Suki” (that’s all the program said) have created a finely detailed garden patio abutting the front of a summer house. There’s also a hint of a tennis court at stage right, as well as a moss hung tree upstage left—all evoking the bayous of Louisiana. Mr. Kadwill also created the lighting design; it serves the production well in Act I, but the second act takes place at night and the actresses faces were lost quite a bit. A wash of blue light across the stage might have helped somewhat. Chris Stewart’s soundscape is suitably creepy, adding significantly to creating the right mood. There were also some nicely done special effects, but no specific credit was listed in the program. It was clear director Kasander had a passion for the material, but I felt it was over-directed in some places. Some of the movement felt forced; and actors do not have to move downstage center every time they have a monologue. However, Kasander did elicit strong performances from his actresses.
Playcrafters is to be applauded for tackling a little-known play and presenting a well-produced staging of Ayckbourn’s work. Snake In the Grass is a unique blend of comedy and Gothic thriller. There are three performances left—Thursday 8/31, Friday 9/1 and Saturday 9/2 @8pm. I would recommend taking the drive out to Playcrafters—Skippack is a charming Victorian village, with lots of lovely shops to browse and plenty of places to dine before the show or catch a drink after.
If You Go: Playcrafters of Skippack is located at 2011 Store Rd, Skippack, PA 19474—just off Skippack Pike. To reach the Box Office call 610-584-4005; or browse the website for tickets and info: www.playcrafters.org