Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by MadKap Productions.
Veronica’s Room is a 1973 mystery by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, Deathtrap) now being staged by Skokie’s MadKap Productions that explores the precarious relationships between reality and fantasy or madness. Directed by Stephen M. Genovese, the play puts the audience in the middle of a situation that is by no means straightforward, a puzzle every bit as complicated as the one that sits on a table in the room of the title, and gives us the fun of trying to guess the twists and turns as they come. Many times during the performance I attended, I could hear gasps of surprise from all around me as people became aware of what was really going on.
The play, performed on a fairly cramped set (by Genovese, clearly designed to show the closeness of the space in this room) on the small Skokie Theatre stage, opens with an middle-aged Irish couple (North Rory Homeward and Maryann Carlson) showing a young couple they have just met the room where Veronica, who has apparently been dead for quite some time, lived most of her life. The couple were housekeepers for the dead woman’s parents and now, in 1973, they tell the young couple (Susan and Larry, played by Katie O’Neill and Layke Fowler) that they are caretakers of the only remaining member of the household, Veronica’s sister Cissie. Cissie’s dementia has progressed to the point where she believes it is actually still 1935; she doesn’t remember that Veronica is dead and bemoans the fact that she never visits anymore. They have convinced Susan, who they say looks almost identical to Veronica, to ease the old woman’s suffering by pretending to be the dead sister and letting Cissie know that she is not angry with her.
And that’s about as much as I can tell you without giving away the play’s multiple secrets. In fact, believe it or not, though all of this is clear in the play’s first ten minutes, I may have said too much already. This one is even more twisty than Deathtrap, which has some stunning moments that reverse everything you thought you knew.
Genovese has his cast in top form for navigating Levin’s playground. Homeward (full disclosure: he’s my son) and Carlson both adopt broad, realistic accents as they inhabit the sweet, solicitous characters they play, and their genuineness helps Susan to feel more comfortable with their odd request. (Larry, on the other hand, seems almost unaccountably suspicious of their motives.) Susan’s nature, though, is to be helpful and nice, and she sees this as a kind of challenge: can she successfully “perform the role” of a young Bostonian from 1935? Can she actually make the older sister believe she’s Veronica and ease the woman’s pain? O’Neill leans into this challenge as her character changes into a period-appropriate costume and tries on a Boston accent. The irritable and skeptical Larry, on the other hand, decides to go downstairs and watch TV until the whole thing is over.
All four actors are completely on their games, and they need to be in order to guide us through the labyrinth of Levin’s plot. Genovese’s direction is crisp and tight, though a couple of moments may feel a bit too abrupt. (A key moment between O’Neill and Carlson could certainly have been prolonged, for example, and the end of Act One is so sudden that the audience isn’t even sure what we have seen.) That first act is a brief 45 minutes, and the second isn’t even that long; it’s unfortunate that the play’s structure necessitates an intermission, as the developing tension would likely play a lot better without one.
Veronica’s Room is an intricately-plotted play that will keep you guessing, and that’s the fun of a mystery. When you are totally fooled by a revelation (and I certainly was at least once), you know that it is doing its job. Unlike Deathtrap, this one doesn’t make use of comedy as a technique, so there is nothing to mitigate its unremitting descent into madness as characters reveal more and more about themselves. In the end, you’ll have been thoroughly entertained, and you’ll leave the theatre shaking your head and smiling at the ways in which the playwright, director, and actors pulled the wool over your eyes.
Veronica’s Room is a MadKap production now playing at Skokie Theater, 7924 Lincoln Ave, Skokie, IL, until Mar 1. The show runs approximately two hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.