Theater review: ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ at Flat Rock Playhouse

GET BUSY LIVING: Andy (Lawrence Street), left, plays chess with his adversary Bogs (Paul Vonasek) in Flat Rock Playhouse's production of The Shawshank Redemption. Photo by Jeb Purcell

We often live life searching for atonement in one way or another. Largely because of this quest, the tale of wrongfully imprisoned Andy Dufresne — as seen in Frank Darabont’s 1994 feature film, The Shawshank Redemption, and Stephen King’s 1982 source novella, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” — has become a celebrated piece of Americana. With the adapted theatrical version by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns onstage through June 30, Flat Rock Playhouse hits the creative mark with a timely production that speaks to modern political injustices and evolving perceptions of the LGBTQ+ community.

The fictitious Shawshank State Prison in New England is the setting of the story told by alpha male Red (played commendably by Joe Pallister). Pessimistically awaiting parole in the late 1940s, Red is the cautious yet reliable source of almost anything that comes within the prison walls, but each item of request also comes at a cost. The smart and withdrawn Andy (Lawrence Street) is the new inmate at “The Shank.” He’s deemed an easy target by a nasty group of gang-rape villains led by Bogs (Paul Vonasek). Once Andy curiously requests a difficult-to-secure rock hammer from Red, their unlikely friendship grows.

As the years drag on, the day comes when good-natured simpleton Tommy (John Selby) enters the slammer, looking to turn his criminal life around. Against all odds, Tommy just so happens to have important information that might acquit the innocent Andy of the murder of his wife. However, the diabolical Warden Stammas (Scott Treadway) will do just about anything to keep the prison held within his evil vise grip.

Despite many theatergoers’ familiarity with the Oscar-nominated film (and possibly King’s novella), the story proves surprisingly enrapturing onstage. Director Lisa K. Bryant clearly has a strong connection to this material  — and it is perhaps her best show thus far. Bryant doesn’t lean into overt sentimentality, which largely strengthens the production. We are constantly reminded that we’re with these men and all hope is barred.

However, there are also times when a particularly emotional or tense scene appears to call for lingering longer in the moment, yet is cut short. This approach rather daringly eliminates the tear-jerking aspect for a more uplifting journey, but Bryant compensates with engaging background action, offbeat blocking and thoughtful casting.

The Shawshank Redemption’s exclusively male ensemble is nothing short of terrific, particularly our hero and his antagonist. Street gives Andy a somber strength and willpower that the underdog in all of us can root for. We truly feel agony when he finally breaks down, which motivates us to recognize times when we have all been let down or almost given up on something. Through this powerful performance, our hearts are reminded to transcend any such dark feelings.

With a lesser actor, the part of Andy’s counter Bogs could have been a cardboard cutout of a villain, yet Vonasek makes this menace feel very real and very uncomfortable. That discomfort not only stems from the action we see onstage but what Vonasek makes us question inside of us. If we were stuck behind prison walls, what would we do? Who would we become?

Vonasek takes us across the shameful threshold of what it’s like to feel completely unforgivable and no longer care about any consequences. Furthermore, his provocative portrayal perfectly highlights injustices and misunderstandings regarding the LGBTQ+ community. Seeing the play in today’s climate makes such topics hit differently than they did back when the movie was made and the novella was written. There is a strange undercurrent of either fear, shame or negativity within many of the characters — emotions that are very telling of not only a different time but of how, inside the walls of a prison, time truly stands still.

One of, if not the greatest, assets to this production is Dennis C. Maulden’s dreamscape scenic design. His creation is a cross between a shadowy film noir and an expressionist world, reminiscent of the silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The set perfectly allows for the usage of Patrick W. Lord’s and Clara Ashe-Moore’s projected black-and-white imagery and videography. What could have been an ill-fated move of cheesiness or technological intrusion manages to incorporate a creepy, funereal vibe.

As the play reaches the iconic yet triumphant middle-finger moment given to the prison, theatergoers familiar with the story may feel a bit robbed by certain climactic choices. Nevertheless, this production of The Shawshank Redemption proves thoroughly stirring, and the tension it inspires at times feels like a darkened theme park ride. Given the violence, adult language, brief nudity and depictions of rape, this is definitely a show for mature audiences. Seeing Flat Rock Playhouse embrace its edge and finally advance into uncharted territory is worth the visit alone and cements this marvelous production as one of this year’s best local plays.

WHAT: The Shawshank Redemption
WHERE: Flat Rock Playhouse, 2661 Greenville Highway, Flat Rock,
WHEN: Through Sunday, June 30. Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 2 p.m. $45-$65.


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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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One thought on “Theater review: ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ at Flat Rock Playhouse

  1. Nick Case

    Seen the play last night… Excellence. That’s all I can say, I hung on every word, of every scene! Never tired or board. Acting was fanominal, which starts with writters and directors vision. Highly highly recommend this!

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