There is a lot of theater happening this weekend in the Quad Cities, but absolutely nothing like the latest offering from the Black Box Theatre, 1623 5th Ave., Moline.
Feel-good musicals are at Circa ’21, Music Guild, and Spotlight Theatre, a feel-good farce is at Richmond Hill, and a new noir murder mystery at Mockingbird on Main. The new Black Box production is the opposite – a tense, disturbing psychological thriller.
“Veronica’s Room,” by Ira Levin (1929-2007) — author of “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Deathtrap,” “The Stepford Wives” and “The Boys From Brazil” — opens Thursday, April 7, and runs two weekends.
“Most people know Ira Levin for ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘Veronica’s Room’ is just as thrilling,” BBT director and co-owner Lora Adams said recently.
The synopsis for the haunting 1973 play states: “This chilling mystery thriller by the author of Rosemary’s Baby explores the thin line between fantasy and reality, madness and murder. Students Susan and Larry find themselves as guests enticed to the Brabissant mansion by its dissolute caretakers, the lonely Mackeys.
“Struck by Susan’s strong resemblance to Veronica Brabissant, long-dead daughter of the family for whom they work, the older couple gradually induce her to impersonate Veronica briefly to solace the only living Brabissant, her addled sister who believes Veronica alive,” the summary says.
“Once dressed in Veronica’s clothes, Susan finds herself locked in the role and locked in Veronica’s room. Or is she Veronica, in 1935, pretending to be an imaginary Susan?”
The Black Box cast includes Don Faust as The Man, Wendy Czekalski as The Woman, Adrienne Jane Evans as The Young Woman, and Adam Cerny as The Young Man.
Ira Levin’s New York Times obituary said: “Combining elements of several genres — mystery, Gothic horror, science fiction and the techno-thriller — Mr. Levin’s novels conjured up a world full of quietly looming menace, in which anything could happen to anyone at any time. In short, the Ira Levin universe was a great deal like the real one, only more so: more starkly terrifying, more exquisitely mundane.”
An area premiere
Adams (a longtime QC theater veteran) hasn’t heard anyone else doing “Veronica’s Room” around here.
“I got to the end of the play and my jaw dropped, and then it dropped farther,” she said Tuesday. “When I was thinking of what to do here, I thought this was a little different.”
“We joke, don’t tell anybody the ending, because we don’t want to ruin it,” Adams said of the shocking twists. “I think that’s the fun of it for the audience. I think the audience will spend some time looking back at the first act.”
“Once again, we have to reestablish with our audiences, as they get used to coming back to theater,” she said of COVID’s impact. “That’s the biggest hurdle for all of us right now.”
“Veronica’s Room” was never made into a movie, and Adams first wanted to stage it a few years ago. She likes finding actors and putting them in shows they wouldn’t usually do, like Czekalski (who typically does musicals).
“This is not something she’s ever done before and I think she’s doing a great job with it,” Adams said. “This is really out of her comfort zone, and I’m really tickled that she took it on.”
Adrienne Jane Evans was in the BBT “I and You” and “A Christmas Carol” radio play, and Adam Cerny has been in “Silent Sky” and “Rock of Ages” at Black Box. Faust is new to the 60-seat venue.
“I’m really pleased with where we are with it,” Adams said, noting the action is set in 1935 and 1973. “1973, a time of truly heinous clothing.”
Evans is a 22-year-old manager of Vibrant Credit Union’s Milan branch. She said her castmates are all superstars. “We all have been doing theater for quite some time,” she said.
Cerny, who only came into rehearsals 10 days ago (replacing another actor), noted it was already “a well-oiled machine,” he said. He memorably played Clifford in “Deathtrap,” in a 2016 Playcrafters production, and loves the chilling, hair-raising Levin.
“What I love about Ira Levin, by the end, you find this could actually happen in real life,” Cerny said. “It’s not like ghosts and spirits; it’s stuff that can actually happen and that’s what makes it terrifying.”
“It does feel real,” Jane agreed. “I am walking to my car in downtown Moline, and if I hear someone behind me, I think, is someone following me?”
Levin “has this way of uncovering the darkest parts of humanity,” Cerny said. “People are so layered in general and Ira Levin has a way of pulling out the darkest, deepest, most shadowy parts of that psyche and making it center stage.”
“That’s the hard part about it,” Evans said of thinking this kind of horror could never happen. “This show is real because you just can’t tell what is real. You leave here thinking, who’s the liar? Who’s the one that was wrong?”
Cerny called the play dark, realistic and not histrionic. “It makes sense in a sick way, in a twisted way,” he said.
“The whole story is the result of familial trauma,” Cerny said. “We don’t know what’s going on behind people’s closed doors…This story is probably happening somewhere,” he said.
The thrill of intimate theater
Evans and Cerny are excited to be so close to the audience at Black Box.
“Their energy’s gonna be interesting to play off of,” he said. “It’s like a dialogue with the audience. I am really looking forward to what kind of energy that they bring.”
Cerny (who’s a counseling astrologer, in his 30s) called “Veronica’s Room” a “different sort of terror” than “Deathtrap.”
Evans also had the shocker of an ending in Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You” last July at BBT, where audience members audibly gasped and cried. In that two-person play, the boy is actually her organ donor and isn’t real in the moment. The conversations were imagined as she was under anesthesia.
“You could hear the audience crying and it’s such an emotional feeling,” she recalled. “This is not a beautiful show, like a heartwarming ending, but this is something — it is just soul-shattering. It’s heartbreaking, to know things like this could happen in the real world. It’s so crazy that we get to have the honor to tell people’s stories.”
“It’s really a thrill, to get their reaction and to see the faces,” Cerny (who was just in Playcrafters’ “Rabbit Hole”) said, noting that boosts the actors’ energy level.
“It’s intoxicating,” Evans said.
“This play is perfect for this space,” Cerny said. “I don’t know how you would do it in a big theater. You want to feel kind of that claustrophobic suggestion, which is perfect. I feel when you walk in here, you are in Veronica’s room. From beginning to end, this play clicks. You’re going through this experience from start to finish with these characters.”
“It feels very authentic,” Evans said. “It doesn’t seem like a manipulated thing.”
Both Cerny and Evans have acted in plays written by Faust — he in “Dad & Me” in Davenport in 2019, and she in “Princeton’s Rage” at Playcrafters last June.
“It was beautiful,” she said of the latter. “It was a very interesting experience. I had never been part of something that new. I was like a workshop of sorts. It felt like we were breaking the ground on a brand-new character. It felt really cool.”
Evans suggested “Veronica’s Room” is a show that should be seen twice and the second time around, “you feel the ick even more,” she said.
“It moves you, but just shocks and disrupts your system, but in the most amazing way,” Cerny said. “I love when live theater can actually do that, elicit those reactions. Oh, my gosh…”
“This is something, it keeps me up at night,” she said. “I think about every single word that I say.”
“It’s very well-written. It’s believable dialogue and very good dialogue,” Faust said, noting this is technically his second Black Box show, after a brief stint in a radio play.
“When I heard about this show, I immediately wanted to be in it,” he said of “Veronica’s Room.” “As an actor, this was going to be a real challenge, on so many different levels. The psychology of the play, not to mention the fact we only had three and a half weeks of rehearsal.”
“I like doing fun shows; I like doing easy shows, but I knew his was not gonna be easy,” Faust said. “It was more for the challenge, not only quickly, but the psychology of it.”
It’s also more satisfying to be in a small, ensemble cast show, with meaty parts, he added. “They’re awesome to work with. It’s like hitting the ground running. And I love this space — it’s small, it’s intimate. They put out really, really good stuff.”
“Veronica’s Room” is both directed and designed by Adams (BBT co-founder), with set construction by Michael Kopriva, stage manager Kori Ralston, crew Samantha Lindholm, and light design by David Miller.
Tickets are available at theblackboxtheatre.com. Show times are Thursday ($13), Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 p.m. ($16). Masks are not required but encouraged.