Few fictional characters are famous enough that their names have entered the lexicon as adjectives, but that’s certainly the case with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde” was an instant best-seller, and it has been adapted for film and theater countless times.
Part of the challenge in performing an adaptation of Stevenson’s iconic tale for a 21st-century audience is the fact that everyone already knows it backward and forward. As adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, Spokane Civic Theatre’s new production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” doesn’t overhaul the story or transplant its themes to a new setting or time period: This is a simple, meat-and-potatoes kind of show, one that doesn’t fool around with the basics of the story, and that approach suits the material well.
In sticking to the basic formula – save for a few tweaks here and there – the play demonstrates precisely why the Jekyll and Hyde story has remained one of the more famous in literature. Knowing its every turn doesn’t hobble the show in any way, and it remains an absorbing, atmospheric horror yarn.
Providing a proper plot synopsis almost isn’t necessary – I have a hard time believing that anybody wandering into the Civic’s studio theater won’t know what he or she is getting into – so I’ll focus instead on the few instances in which Hatcher and director Susan Hardie have deviated from the predictable.
Hyde is played here by four (yes, four) different actors – Dan Griffith, R. Travis King, Dawn Taylor Reinhardt and Ryan Shore – all of whom play multiple roles throughout the show. That casting decision is not only an interesting theatrical maneuver, but it also creates the terrifying insinuation that perhaps we all have a little Mr. Hyde in us. And each of the actors brings a different interpretation to the role – Reinhardt, for instance, is more quietly foreboding, whereas Shore is explosively violent.
The only major change Hatcher has made to Stevenson’s text is the addition of a character named Elizabeth (Molly Tage). She’s a hotel chambermaid whose sister is beaten by Hyde, and after meeting up with him to settle a debt, she begins a tentative romantic relationship with him. This adds an intriguing new dimension to the Hyde character: He isn’t merely a straightforward embodiment of evil as he was in Stevenson’s novella – he’s a complex, erratic man who has the ability to feel sympathy and affection – and that human element actually makes the character more menacing.
The love story is the only problematic aspect of Hatcher’s adaptation, since it seems unlikely that a seemingly level-headed woman would ever fall head over heels for a guy who’s so obviously a brutish, snarling, teeth-gnashing villain. Imagine Dudley Do-Right untying Nell from the railroad tracks only to have her run off with Snidely Whiplash. But Tage and Shore (whose version of Hyde takes the lead in this particular subplot) develop an intensity in their scenes that allows us to overlook any improbabilities.
And as Jekyll, Dave Rideout does some nice, nuanced work with a role that could easily, in the wrong hands, become a cliché. Jekyll is a meek but intuitive man, yet Rideout finds a way to make him threatening when he’s looked at from a certain angle.
There are only eight actors in the cast, allowing the story to work effectively on an intimate scale. Its central conceit, that of man’s potential for evil and the mysterious inner workings of the human conscience, still holds fascination, and by seriously considering those themes, the Civic has gotten to the gloriously twisted heart of Stevenson’s tale.