Spoiler Alert: This review does reveal some of the plot, so if you want it to be a surprise, read this after you see it.
People came to the Hartford Stage Friday night for some Bacon and left opening night having experienced something even more savory in “Rear Window.”
The thriller — perhaps more commonly known in the form of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film adaptation starring James Stewart as L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries and Grace Kelly as female ingenue Lisa Carol Fremont — actually mirrors the original crime story by Cornell Woolrich more closely in playwright Keith Reddin’s stage adaptation. Set in the 1940’s, the play stars Kevin Bacon as wheelchair bound Hal Jeffries who spies on his neighbors and is convinced one of them, Thorwald (Robert Stanton), killed his wife, Mrs. Thorwald (Melinda Page Hamilton).
Before Bacon completely emerged on stage, the audience applauded as they heard the stage door open in the obscured set bedroom. He crutched in with a full leg cast and didn’t have to speak for you to recognize the attention to detail and prestigious talent in his acting. Bacon presents a eccentrically fixated, rugged, washed up former crime journalist, with masked flamboyance, who helped police nab many killers — an alteration from Stewart’s photographer peering through his literal and figurative camera lens at his neighbors’ lives for entertainment and even questionably voyeuristic purposes.
Bacon’s Jeffries also observes his neighbors for entertainment, referring to them as characters in his own real-life movie. But his spying doesn’t seem to be of the “peeping Tom” variety and more of a character study of their lives. He seemingly thrives on solving the puzzle of others’ lives with frightening precision and connecting with them from afar while at the same time being ironically reclusive without a real need for human contact and struggling with embracing his own reality.
The playwright, Reddin, who was seated in the audience opening night, infused biographical facets of original author Woolrich’s life into Bacon’s character, such as alcoholism and closeted homosexuality.
“I went back to the original short story by Cornell Woolrich, which was very different from the Hitchcock movie. The relationship of Jeffries to this young black man, Sam was really intriguing and I thought it’s also really topical to now,” Reddin said after the premier, describing the short story as much “grittier,””darker,” and “much more disturbing and complicated.” “So we wanted to go back to that.”
While Grace Kelly plays Stewart’s love interest in the movie, her Lisa and the female caretaker, Stella (Thelma Ritter) don’t appear in the play. Instead Reddin populates the theatrical version with male characters at the forefront of the story. A black caretaker named Sam (McKinley Belcher III) replaces both Lisa and Stella, harking back on Woolrich’s inclusion of that character in the original story. Both Belcher III’s Sam and John Bedford Lloyd’s role as the homicide detective, Boyne allude to Jeffries’ possible romantic interest in Sam, but no physicality manifests confirmation of that. Bacon does, however, portray a self-conflicted resistance to subtle advances and comments referencing his characters’ potential love interest, particularly in forbidding Sam from entering his bedroom at first. Reddin said that he chose that direction with the story, representing the author’s life and the time period of the original story.
“Cornell Woolrich, the writer, was a repressed homosexual, a closeted homosexual. He was married and then the marriage broke up and then in the ’40s, which was illegal, was trying to have relationships with me,” Reddin said. “You couldn’t do it. It was forbidden. It was illegal. So the fact that there’s this sexual tension that he’s (Jeffries), on a very subtle level’s attracted to this man (Sam) and torn between it’s illegal and forbidden and ‘I’m attracted to this black man because I’m a homosexual,’ as the writer was.
Reddin also found importance in reintroducing the character of Sam because of the racial significance, which he found relevant today as the “Black Lives Matter” movement sweeps the country.
“And the whole thing with police intolerance, you know, the racism of that time, and how it reflects on now, I thought that was really fascinating,” Reddin said.
Lloyd’s pompous Boyne interacts with Sam in a blatantly racist fashion and Belcher III’s bubbly, friendly Sam puts his guard up the minute Boyne comes through the door, showing contempt and distrust toward law enforcement, symbolizing the tension between police officers and minorities in that time period.
The racial motif also surfaces when Thorwald catches Sam in his apartment looking for clues he murdered his wife (a mission Grace Kelly is sent on in the movie). While Grace Kelly’s Lisa, a white, stunning, upstanding lady, is able to talk her way out of the possible murderer’s apartment wearing his wife’s wedding ring when police arrive, Sam is pegged as a burglar as prejudiced police hunt for him after he flees.
Thorwald later breaks into Jeffries’ apartment armed and out for blood — but not as a scared wife-killer wanting to know why a stranger is harassing him. He’s not even really after Jeffries or necessarily worried about the accusation of murder and who’s behind it. He knows a black man was rifling through his things and his purpose seems to be a racial motive to kill him. All the while, Sam seems to hope Jeffries, who wrote an unfavorable article condemning police for executing a young black boy he believed was innocent, will be his savior in helping him escape racial stereotypes.
In the movie, the killer is caught and lives to tell his story, but in the play, all killers’ stories are told through Jeffries articles — commemorated with murder weapons from the crimes that he keeps on display in his apartment and other artifacts of Jeffries’ triumphs in helping police put away murderers that secured him journalistic glory. In the stage version, Sam shoots Thorwald dead as police are faced with the aftermath of a shootout involving a black and white man, so he doesn’t tell his story. We know what we know because of Jeffries’ inferences about his life and Boyne’s skewed explanation of the murder of Mrs. Thorwald that makes the police look good and gives Jeffries no credit.
Sam’s fate is unclear at the end. He walks out as an equal with Jeffries, who is seemingly at peace, leaving the murder weapon memorabilia on the walls instead of continuing to herald them as trophies. Jeffries is walking again and seems to accept his relationship with Sam and refuses to let him carry his suitcase like a servant. But we saw Sam get shot, so did he die and this is a figment of Jeffries’ imagination? Or did he actually live and his death was faked so he and Jeffries could start over happily ever after?
Perhaps the reason for that blurred ending is that we see different versions of Jeffries’ reality, obscured by alcohol and tempered on the surface over layers of near insanity, paranoia and the thrill of uncovering people’s secrets. He seems to abruptly jump to the conclusion that Thorwald killed his wife early on, deciding on the ending without evidence and looking for any clue to support his theory. The play often cuts back and forth hastily to his spying and conspiracy theories like you’re on a train that has stalled and then suddenly jolts full steam ahead. Jeffries’ obsession with proving Thorwald is a murderer controls his reality and drives the plot.
We see this visually with one of the most elaborate and ingeniously crafted sets I’ve ever seen, designed by Alexander Dodge, who also did the set for the Tony Award-Winning Hartford Stage original musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Jeffries’ apartment is at the forefront and the back wall drops when we are observing Jeffries spying on his neighbors, brought to life by an ensemble that breathes depth into the story’s many layers. The apartment of the Thorwalds’ even spins so we can see the interior as Jeffries imagines it during conversations with Thorwald in his head. The production is very cinematic by design and makes utilizes music, train sound effects, projections of Bacon’s eyes as he spies on his neighbors and other images and other visual and audio elements, bringing the feel of the movie to live theater.
“There’s jump cuts and dissolves and reveals and we had a whole score, you know, which you don’t usually see. Like a film score underscoring all the action. You don’t usually see that with theater, so again the director wanted to use a lot of cinematic devices and also make it theatrical,” Reddin said. “Going into his (Jeffries’) head like a guy is talking to him in his head and stuff like that.”
The dropping set wall also allows us to more clearly see what Jeffries is seeing when he looks out his rear window, making it much more interesting than if this were a one-man show only relaying his observations through monologue and reliance on audience imagination. Thrillers are more effective when they draw on all the senses required to give you chills and make you curious about the unknown. The visual access to the back apartment set also allows Jeffries to have conversations, albeit imaginary, with Mrs. Thorwald, and to better see interactions with her and her husband to build on the audience’s assessment of whether Thorwald had a motive to kill his wife and is indeed a murderer. This also takes us visually into Jeffries’ head a bit more.
You don’t hear the neighbors speak much in the movie, besides when Thorwald comes to Jeffries’ apartment to confront him and figure out what’s going on.
Melinda Page Hamilton, also known for her role as the real Mrs. Donald Draper in “Mad Men, doubles as Mrs. Thornwald and Gloria, Jeffries’ ex-wife, who we see in flashbacks. Reddin said that was intentional because he sees some of Gloria in her, perhaps seeking redemption for his failed marriage and the pain he caused Gloria by trying to save Mrs. Thorwald or get justice for her if she indeed was killed.
“We played around with the idea that maybe you think he’s crazy or this guy didn’t do it and he’s disintigrating as your watch, but ironically he’s actually right,” Reddin said.
Woolrich, who Isaac Asimov dubbed “the master of suspense” and his editor Francis M. Nevins Jr. called the “Poe of the Twentieth Century,” was born in 1903 in New York City and studied journalism at Columbia University in 1918, influencing film noir with his short stories and novels, according to the playbill for “Rear Window.” In 1925, he got a foot infection and left college to write his first novel, “Cover Charge” and later met and married filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton’s daughter, Gloria Blackton, who he met when he moved to Hollywood to work on a screen adaption of his second book, “Children of the Ritz,” according to the program. But they only lasted six months and Gloria later discovered Woolrich’s diary, which disclosed him “dressing up in a sailor suit to pick up men.” He said in one entry that “it might be a really good joke to marry this Gloria Blackton,” according to the program.
Woolrich moved in with his mother in New York and lived with her for the remainder of her years, writing crime and detective stories that were published in “pulp magazines,” according to the program. “Three O’Clock” and “It Had to Be Murder,” the inspiration for “Rear Window,” were two of his most famous stories and many of his works were adapted to movies, radio and television, the program states. He became more reclusive and took his mother’s death in 1957 pretty hard, turning to the bottle and drinking heavily, which affected his writing as he dabbled in less successful horror and adventure fiction, according to the playbill. He got gangrene in 1968 and the infection spread on his right leg, requiring it to be amputated below his knee, the playbill states. That year, he dipped into a coma after being found unconscious in a hotel room, dying Sept. 25, according to the program.
The playwright, Reddin, is from New Jersey and now lives in New York, but he chose to debut his stage adaptation of “Rear Window” in Connecticut at the Hartford Stage because of Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak, who directed “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
“Because Darko’s a very exciting director,” Reddin said, adding that he enjoyed tackling “old film noir” and “crime stories.” “You know, he’s visually the most exciting director around. I knew that he could bring this to life in a really big way. This is a huge ambitious production that we don’t normally get to see.”
And if you were lucky enough to get tickets to the sold-out production, you will.
For more information on “Rear Window” and the Hartford Stage, visit www.hartfordstage.org. The play runs through Nov. 15. The theater did make standing room only seats available opening night, so it might be worth looking into because this is a production you won’t want to miss. I could definitely see this as another Hartford Stage original making it to Broadway.