Review: ‘I’ll Be Back’ at Stage West mixes creepy with shocking

Tensions rise between sisters-in-law after Laura Sanderson unexpectedly arrives at the remote farmhouse to stay with her brother, Greg Sanderson, and his wife Jan, in the classic thriller, I'll Be Back Before Midnight. Courtesy of Carol Ballard
Tensions rise between sisters-in-law after Laura Sanderson unexpectedly arrives at the remote farmhouse to stay with her brother, Greg Sanderson, and his wife Jan, in the classic thriller, I'll Be Back Before Midnight. Courtesy of Carol Ballard
Published April 16
Updated April 17

The murder mystery/thriller I’ll Be Back Before Midnight is loaded with potential. Playwright Peter Colley’s spooky, sometimes creepy, script has lots of surprises, scary moments and a few jokes to break the tension.

And the production at Stage West Community Playhouse through April 22 has a lot going for it — four fine actors, a marvelously detailed set, good lighting, and splendid sound and special effects. Of special note is the eerie music played during scene changes, which keeps the suspense going and the audience involved in the unfolding story.

All it needs is some tightening up, and this two-hour show will be a true winner. There are far too many excruciatingly long pauses between delivery of lines and a scene or two that outstay their welcome.

I’ll Be Back is set in the present in a remote farmhouse rented by Greg and Jan Sanderson (David Daly and Toni Dwyer) to give Jan a chance to recuperate from a recent stay in a mental institution. Something seems off-kilter from the opening curtain. Does Greg really care about Jan, or did he marry her because her father could further his career? Is Jan really mentally unstable, or is she being gas-lighted by Greg for some unknown reason?

Things grow more complicated (and foreboding) when Greg’s sister Laura (Leslee Starz) arrives. She and Jan have a mutual hatred, but it’s the incestuous relationship between Laura and Greg that is most disturbing. Is Laura in on some kind of conspiracy against Jan in her quest to have Greg all to herself?

The ominous feelings are leavened by neighbor/landlord George Willowby (George Friel), who drops by in his bib overalls and plaid shirt to gleefully tell the already terrified Jan ghoulish ghost stories and about murders that haunt the house. All the while, he jokes about his crummy family relationships and weird choices of beverage — no coffee nor hot chocolate, "on doctor’s orders," but plenty of whiskey, neat, if you please.

What follows is the stuff of all good horror stories: wild windstorms that knock out the lights, sudden appearances of scary intruders, shocking sights of presumably dead bodies, twists and turns. Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? And all of it is accompanied by effective spooky music, special effects and lights, done by a huge behind-the-scenes crew that put a lot of work and effort into this production. That starts with director Jay Ingle, who has a thumb in all of it, aided by Theresa Stenger, Ellen Hutt, David Stenger, Nicole Moore, Lynda Dilts-Benson, Cody Ingle, Marco Martinez, and the entire cast.

Ingle’s best contribution is, arguably, his choice of cast. Ms. Starz’s Laura is beautiful, coy, menacing, sexy and threatening, all at the same time, as she tosses her long blond hair and preens her voluptuous body to tease Greg and taunt Jan.

Friel’s country boy George’s droll humor and delivery thereof supply the right amount of ghoulish whimsy to keep this story from being one long breath-holder.

Ms. Dwyer’s Jan is walking, talking innocence, confused by her own mind, suspicious of her husband, fearful of her sister-in-law — or is she?

Costumers Theresa Stenger, Ingle and the cast get extra points throughout the show for dressing the characters in a way that telegraphs their inner character at first sight.

Daly carries the heaviest load as Greg, who is either a loving husband, a two-timing cheat, a devoted scientist, a phony or all of the above. Because his role is the pivotal one, his frequently hesitant delivery is more glaring, though he partially makes up for it in enthusiasm and "stage business."

That said, I’ll Be Back Before Midnight has a cunning plot that keeps the audience guessing from beginning to end, which is the fun of a thriller, with some blood and gore thrown in for good measure.

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