Daphne Du Maurier's classic, haunting novel Rebecca is an ambitious project to recreate on stage, but 2nd Story Theatre does the tale justice with a smart, well-paced and engaging production.
The story's protagonist is known only as "Mrs. de Winter" or "the second Mrs. de Winter" and the lack of identity implied by her title is entirely fitting. Mrs. de Winter (played by Erin Sheehan) is just 21 years old, terribly awkward and shy, and about to embark on a lifestyle she is ill-prepared to manage.
Mrs. de Winter marries far above her social station – Maxim de Winter (Jeff Church) is the master of a famous estate in the English countryside – and she is much younger than her new husband. As she struggles to quiet her insecurities and to find a steady foothold in her new life, the second Mrs. de Winter discovers that she faces an even more challenging obstacle: her new home, Manderley, is haunted.
The house does not host a resident specter, but it is nonetheless haunted by the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter, the remarkably lovely, unfailingly gracious and universally beloved Rebecca. No one person does more to keep Rebecca's spirit alive in Manderley – and to continuously remind the second Mrs. de Winter of her shortcomings by comparison to the late mistress – than Mrs. Danvers (Rae Mancini), housekeeper at the estate and Rebecca's personal maid.
As the months go by, the past and present become more and more entangled, and Manderley's secret whispers grow louder and more pressing until they – and Rebecca's lingering presence – cannot be ignored.
2nd Story cast Rebecca brilliantly. Sheehan allows Mrs. de Winter's almost painful timidity to come across naturally and fully captures the new bride's uncertain approach to her role as mistress of Manderley. Sheehan tempers this shyness with an endearing charm, the very "funny, young, lost look" that first attracted Maxim's notice.
Church plays Maxim with both the distracted aloofness and fixed intensity the character demands. Though his youthful looks conflict with the claim that Maxim is twice his new wife's age, Church and Sheehan work well together and especially so in the second act.
Mancini is fabulous as the manipulative Mrs. Danvers. Her interactions with Sheehan are tense and steely; Mancini's performance is controlled and nuanced with an undercurrent of menace and a very real sense of grief. Her one bout of "helpfulness" – working with Mrs. de Winter to prepare for the Manderley fancy-dress ball – comes through as a masterfully-played psychological game, while her fevered account of Rebecca's death hints at Mrs. Danvers' own unbalanced state of mind.
The cast also includes Tray Gearing and F. William Oakes as Maxim's sister Beatrice and brother-in-law Giles. Gearing and Oakes are a winning duo and they add a good dose of lightheartedness to the production. Alex Duckworth plays Manderley's mild-mannered manager Frank Crawley with soft-spoken ease, always kind, diplomatic and fiercely protective of Maxim and the estate. JoNathan Jacobs is the ideal Jack Favell from head to wing-tip shoes: smarmy, disconcerting and dangerous.
Trevor Elliott, set and lighting designer for Rebecca, deserves special notice for his work on this production. In du Maurier's novel, Manderley is just as much a character as the de Winters, Mrs. Danvers or the servants. Elliott skillfully translates the grand seaside estate to the stage at 2nd Story and captures Manderley's darkly dreamy atmosphere by using screen projections to create stunning views – from the stormy sea to bright morning sunshine to flares illuminating the sky – on the great manor windows.
2nd Story Theatre presents Rebecca through July 29, 2012. Tickets are available by phone (401) 247-4200, through e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or by visiting the box office at 28 Market Street, Warren, RI. Regular tickets are $25; audience members under age 21 pay $20. Visit www.2ndstorytheatre.com for more information.
Pictured: Rae Mancini as Mrs. Danvers and Erin Sheehan as Mrs. de Winter. Photo by Richard W. Dionne, Jr.