Theater review: The 39 Steps at Hendersonville Community Theatre

Bryan Byrd, Kathy O'Connor, Christopher McLoughln and Tessa Martin Photo by Daniel Dyer

Hendersonville Little Theatre has a new name. It is now, officially, Hendersonville Community Theatre. The rebranding launched with a production of The 39 Steps, a classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller with an old-school vaudeville twist. The show is a farce with broad action and storytelling, a throwback to a bygone era of radio drama, silent movies and high camp. Despite some limitations within the intimate space, director Jim Walker and his inspired cast and crew deliver a clever romp. Seating only a little more than 100 people, the theater places the audience is closer to the action on the small stage. And this show is filled with nonstop action.

Christopher McLoughlin stars as Richard Hannay, a rakishly handsome man with a pencil-thin mustache and a pipe clenched in his teeth, held in place by the typical British stiff upper lip. He is a gifted comedic performer who must endure a wild chase, secret machinations and double crosses. Tessa Martin assumes many guises throughout the show, femme fatale and damsel-in-distress among them. She slips easily into the many hats and wigs required, and provides a strong support for McLoughlin.

There are a multitude of characters being played by two “clowns” who take on many roles — often within seconds of each other — with the switch of a hat and a dialect. Bryan Byrd is a wonderful presence as Clown 2, playing a nonstop series of characters from a policeman to a maniacal German mastermind. Kathy O’Connor gives an agile physical performance as Clown 1, but it would seem that her roles were given the thickest accents among the characters. Often the dialect is so thick that is has audience members whispering back and forth asking what was just said. While that’s very funny in one role of a drunken milkman, the longer the heavy dialects go on, the harder it is to follow.

In the role of the strong, silent emcee, Henry Styron appears between scenes to change the place card on a stand, depicting where the audience is being taken next. It is a nice silent-movie touch. Styron also spends time entertaining during those quick moments, while the onstage scenery is changed.

The audience clearly came looking for a fun time, and there was a lot to find entertaining. A few sequences on board a train were particularly delightful, with the actors moving and swaying to the motion. The sequence also includes a clever chase alongside and on top of the train. Special credit to set designer John Arnett for those elements, as well as a pair of tall book shelves that roll along to make it look like the actors are walking down a corridor.

WHAT: The 39 Steps

WHERE: Hendersonville Community Theatre.

WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 15, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, at 2 p.m. $10-$20

About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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