“Bellwether” by Steve Yockey at Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Photo by David Allen Studio: Arwen Anderson (left), Kathryn Zdan

Yes, Virginia, There Really is a Boogeyman

When a show starts with a group of clean-cut people gathering onstage to insist “bad things just don’t happen here!” and “I live in a nice neighborhood!” you suspect they’re kidding themselves, but that’s only the setup, of course. “Bellwether” becomes a chilling indictment of human society and the media’s frenzied pursuit of fear-based “news” – that, and much, much more. Childhood terrors become real, heralded by mysterious, thunderous booms and a gathering shroud of fog.

Now in its 45th season, Marin Theatre Company once again shows how it earned its place as one of California’s top regional theaters. With the world premiere of “Bellwether”, playwright Steve Yockey, whose works are celebrated for their darkly amusing analysis of modern life, takes us down a rabbit hole that is part wonderland, part netherworld, one that’s most definitely not for the kiddies.

Jackie and Alan Draft and their 6-year-old daughter Amy are new residents of the suburban community of Bellwether, a seeming refuge of tranquility from the chaotic city life they left behind. Sure, they have a bit of domestic discord and meddlesome neighbors, but who doesn’t, right? What they and their neighbors don’t know is there is more than fog creeping in on little cat’s feet. And when Amy Draft suddenly goes missing, the relentless media coverage of her disappearance takes on a life of its own, creating its own reality. Everyone is on the attack and on the defense at the same time. There is a gradual, relentless build in the frustration and anxiety that reaches a bizarre, shocking crescendo at the very end of the second act. It’s the kind of cliffhanger that keeps an audience on the edge of their seats, rushing back from intermission to see what happens next.

Arwen Anderson as Jackie and Gabriel Marin as Alan invest their roles with an affectionate, subtle realism that makes the story’s unfolding events all the more terrifying. Their palpable tension, then anguish, and finally despair drives the audience with them around a totally bizarre bend in the road. Rachel Harker is riveting as their lonely neighbor Maddy, simultaneously expressing her needy and vindictive nature.

Kathryn Zdan as the Doll, a character that literally comes out of nowhere (and rightfully so), is a stunning cypher. Also totally unexpected is Amy, a little girl transformed, played by Jessica Lynn Carroll who brings sharp focus to the character in her short time onstage. There is a supporting cast of five, each in a dual role as neighbors, and as either reporters or detectives. Liz Sklar, Marissa Keltie, Millie Stickney, Danny Wolohan and Patrick Jones all display excellent ensemble acting.

The production of “Bellwether” at MTC presents stagecraft at its best. Lighting design by York Kennedy and sound design by composer/technician Chris Houston infuse the dramatic developments with strobe, spots and deep vibrating booms. The crafty set design by Giulio Cesare Perrone is contrived to reassure, amaze and terrify. And Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costume creations offer more to the story than just clothing – they vividly define each character, especially that amazing Doll.

Director Ryan Rilette uses creative and artful staging to manipulate the audience and take us where he wants with delightfully chilling effect. The show is tight as a drum with good pacing and rhythm throughout. Combining the actors’ creativity and solid instincts, Rilette’s direction is fully integrated with light, sound, costume and set design. The result is a visual and emotional feast. The story itself is not entirely satisfying, however. Its logic doesn’t seem to carry through, the resolution is a bit murky and open-ended, and you’re left with an uneasy feeling. But that’s very much like real life, isn’t it?

When: now through October 30, 2011
8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays
2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays
2 p.m. Saturdays October 15 and October 29
1 p.m. Thursday October 20
Tickets: $34 to $55
Location: Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA 94941
Phone: 415-388-5208
Website: www.marintheatre.org