October 09, 2009

An evening of scares and smiles
by Greg Boyle

The onset of football season for the hoi polloi brings the start of the theatre season for the lovers of fine arts. It’s an ironic energetic balance. American Heartland Theatre (AHT) brings us its first offering of the year with a thriller, I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, and unlike the Chiefs, AHT has started the season in the win column. 

Darren Kennedy, Vanessa Severo and James Wright in I’ll Be Back Before Midnight (photo by Shane Rowse)

The play was written by Peter Colley, and has all the classic elements of the genre: big city folks in unfamiliar rural surroundings; nervous wife; husband whose motives you can never trust; conniving, competing female; and local rustic who gets most of the laughs. This is a tried and true formula on display, and the direction of Ron Schaeffer dials the tension level to high, keeping us on the edges of our seats until the final curtain. The sound design of Donna Miller and the lights of Shane Rowse effectively enhance the eeriness of the script.

It seems Greg, a PhD candidate has rented a refurbished farm property to get away from it all. He wants to make a fresh start with his wife, Jan, who has just returned from a hospital after a nervous breakdown. The problem is, she hates the country. Also on hand is Laura, Greg’s sister, and the two of them seem to be hiding something from the past. Appearing at any and every moment, both convenient and inappropriate, is George, the owner of the property. He tells scary and spooky stories that make Jan ready to leave before she’s even unpacked.

Jan is the central character, and is played with barely contained intensity by Vanessa Severo. We’ve seen this young actress carry a show comedically before in Clean House at the Unicorn. This time she shows she can do it dramatically, as well. If her character were played any more high strung, she would have become a caricature, and lost audience sympathy. Never once does Severo step over the line. Her husband Greg, seems to be profoundly unthoughtful in all his choices regarding Jan. Darren Kennedy does a fine job of riding the fence and keeping the audience guessing as to whether his intentions are honorable or not. There is never any doubt about Laura, played with sexy nastiness by Jan Chapman. She is up to no good, and is almost like the villain in a melodrama. You want to hiss whenever she comes onstage.

The character who is the most fun to watch is George, the farmer that the Greg and Jan have rented the house from. James Wright plays this yokel with absolute relish. Too many times have we seen Wright doing roles where he has to be bland. With George, Wright pulls out the stops, shows us his impeccable comic timing, and gives us an over the top character that the audience can’t wait to reappear.

If you like spooky mysteries that also make you laugh, you will love this show.

I’ll Be Back Before Midnight is playing at AHT through Oct. 25. American Heartland Theatre is located at 2450 Grand Boulevard, in Crown Center. For reservations, call the box office at 816-842-9999, or go online at

Greg Boyle can be contacted at