At Berkshire Theatre Group: 'The Cat and the Canary' has chills both eerie and stylish


STOCKBRIDGE -- Lightning flashes; thunder rolls with a building-shaking ferocity; hidden panels in walls and book cases give way to gnarled hands reaching out; people disappear; a painting hangs upside down in the family portrait gallery above the stage; an inmate escapes from a nearby asylum; a murderer is on the loose and someone is determined to prevent the heiress to a Hudson River estate and the fortune that goes with it from enjoying her inheritance.

Welcome to "The Cat and the Canary," a 1922 melodrama thriller by John Willard that is being given a lively, if too stylishly measured, production at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre.

The audience is ushered in by the silent ghostly complement of Glencliff Manor Staff (hats off to all 10 of them), who move about with dutiful Otherworld grace and proficiency, under the silent, watchful command of the manor's housekeeper of long-standing, Mrs. Underwood, (perfectly played by Ariana Venturi), who walks this world and the Other with a eerie certainty and keenness.

The seven surviving relatives of the late Cyrus West have been summoned by his lawyer, Roger Crosby (played by Christopher Geary with reassuring authority), to his Hudson River mansion for a midnight reading of his will At stake is the West's estate and $1 million, providing the person named in the will can remain alive and sane by the time morning comes. If not, it all goes to the next in line, whose name is in a sealed envelope to be opened only if necessary.

The revelation of the heir, Annabelle West (played with sophistication and grounding by Ashton Heyl), comes early in the play. The suspense centers around which one of the remaining crew is out to unhinge, if not downright do away with, Annabelle.

In the midst of all this sturm and drang, there is room for love to bloom and it does so with endearing grace in the hands of Tom Pacinka as Paul, a veterinarian by training, now a garage mechanic by trade, who has fallen -- literally as well as figuratively -- for the gracious Annabelle.

Under Ethan Heard's direction, "The Cat and the Canary" evolves more as an exercise in style for the sake of style rather than style in complement to its story and setting.

Still this young able cast, most of them trained at Yale, as was Heard, deliver youthful freshness, energy and appeal. In the midst of all the heavyweight material on the region's stages these days, "The Cat and the Canary" is a harmless diversion.


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