Playwright: adapted by Robert Kauzlaric from the novel by Wilkie Collins. At: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Tickets: 773-761-4477; www.lifelinetheatre.com; $40. Runs through: Oct. 28
When the first thing we see onstage is a beautiful and distraught young woman on the run, either we are in the realm of pulp noir, or Victorian neo-gothicin this case, early Victorian, circa 1859, its structure relying heavily on epistolary narrative, serialized episodes and long introspective soliloquies. Playgoers with well-developed cognitive stamina will embrace these elements, but those with short attention spans are probably better off sticking with Downton Abbey.
Lifeline Theatre's stock-in-trade is the reconfiguration of literary epics to the restrictions of modern artistic practice, likewise enlightened sensibilities and the company's elevator shaft-shaped stage. To this end, Robert Kauzlaric's adaptation retains the motifs of Wilkie Collins' seminal novelgeographical and meteorological phenomena reflecting its heroes' dispositions, strict adherence to the minutiae of English legal and social codes, and a sybaritic villain with a penchant for small domesticated animals (the prototype for Sydney Greenstreet et al.). A major revision lies in the decision to have the rescue operation implemented in significant degree by a character not romantically tied to the lady-in-distressspecifically, the victim's half-sister, the resourceful and courageous Marian, whose gender introduces a sexual element to the evil Count Fosco's professed admiration for his adversary.
Thus, while Nicholas Bailey and Maggie Scrantom make a suitably attractive pair of sweethearts, the heavy-lifting duties rest on the spun-steel shoulders of Lucy Carapetyan as the forthright Marian, whose defiance of Christopher M. Walsh's oily Fosco generates a David-against-Goliath frisson to induce shivers of excitement. Author Kauzlaric, stepping into the role of the ruthless Sir Percival Glyde at the last minute, delivers another of his reliable reptilian turns, while Anita Deely, Loretta Rezos, Don Bender and Greg Wenz portray an array of sharply-defined auxiliary personnel. Alan Donahue's scenic design suggests locales ranging from shadowy urban alleys to lonely country estates, as does Christopher Kriz's plucked-strings score of incidental music, providing an evocative environment for labyrinthine secrets leading to desperate deeds that Elise Kauzlaric's direction keeps briskly forthcoming.
Indeed, so briskly did the deft ensemble pace themselves on opening night (with the exception of Fosco's too-leisurely final confession) that often continuity was sacrificed to efficiencybut the story's individual components should soon find their correct place in the dramatic scheme to emerge a suspense-filled thriller to satisfy all-ages fans of the genre.