Tessa Wiseman Reviews Fells Point Corner Theater’s The 39 Steps
The Fells Point Corner Theatre isn’t on a corner. In fact, it sits so snugly between rows of homes with brightly painted doors that I nearly mistook it for a residence with an abnormally large entryway. Once inside, a single scan from left to right affirmed that I was in the right place; stage entrance crowded with people, box office, and a little window displaying one-dollar snacks, sodas, and paper cups of wine. The smell of set sawdust and one woman’s overpowering Estée Lauder perfume invaded my senses. I was enchanted. I snagged a Diet Coke and a program that proudly announced the afternoon’s production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.
I’ve seen the play once before in London, in 2009. Back then, I was tired after traipsing around Trafalgar Square, and cared more about resting my aching feet than paying any mind to what my tour guide, Liam, had sworn was a “hilarious classic.” Plus, we had pretty crummy seats. I spent most of the time toying with my flip phone.
This time, I was determined to watch intently and put Liam’s words to the test. I situated myself in the third row; close enough to see sweat shimmering and the occasional spray of saliva during particularly pontificated discussions. The play follows Richard Hannay, an average, blue-eyed Brit with a pencil mustache, who becomes entrenched in a web of spies, secrets, and a message about the ever-evasive 39 Steps that will save the country.
I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of spy stories. The gunshots and cliffhanger music put my blood pressure through the roof. Nevertheless, I was enthralled from the moment the lights dimmed and two of the production’s four actors took the stage. Holly Elizabeth Gibbs and Steven Shriner, who would collectively play nearly 15 different roles throughout the course of the play, greeted the audience warmly, as though we’d known them for years. Together, they didn’t miss a beat, transforming from circus performers, to farmers, to fake police, to paperboys, to people that repeatedly and hilariously booty bump fellow passengers on the crowded train (just to name a few). While always in secondary roles, the two stole the show with their mastery of accents and nonstop tomfoolery. Grayson Owen owned the role of the bored British bachelor Richard Hannay, and Ann Turiano did some transforming herself to play Annabella, Margaret, and Pamela (a spy, farmer’s wife, and rather vanilla but nevertheless endearing woman in stockings, respectively).
After my head stopped spinning from the initial antics of Gibbs and Shriner, I took note of how minimal the sets were. The train was four brown boxes on which characters sat and shook their legs. The audience was made aware that the characters had entered a hotel by a sheet splayed over the top of a ladder reading (wait for it): HOTEL. But the play didn’t need extravagant sets. No frills necessary. The lack of elaborate backdrops put my imagination to work, but the performances were so colorful and the dialogue so snappy that I barely noticed. I found this minimalism actually maximized my viewing experience, as it allowed me to tune in to the words and sounds of every scene.
The Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps was a success, from the four actors’ unwavering commitment to every role (albeit random), to the sets that oh so subtly gave my mind’s eye some exercise. Yes, I jumped at the three gunshots that were fired throughout the performance, but no, I didn’t peek at my phone once. That’s right, four actors kept my complete attention for two hours of laughs and quick changes. I can almost hear Liam’s “I told you so” now.
Tessa Wiseman is a Baltimore-based writer from Tampa, FL.