Total theatre Review

Just in time for Halloween, Off the Wall Theatre presents the Milwaukee premiere of a new thriller, Stranger in the Attic, by John Kaasik. Clues abound throughout this chilling, suspenseful narrative – right down to the very last second, when a major plot twist is revealed. According to director and company founder Dale Gutzman, Stranger reminds him of the psychological movie thrillers of yesteryear, including “Vertigo” (1958), “Rear Window” (1954) and “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” (1954). He’s right on the money about that.

Stranger in the Attic is set in a small vacation town. A true crime writer (Robert Zimmerman) is having a seemingly nonchalant chat with his second wife, Dana (Amber Regan). In between pouring herself cocktails, Dana explodes at the thought of her husband’s latest mystery story being based on the unexplained disappearance of his first wife many years ago. Brian, the writer, never recovered from this strange turn of events. The woman simply evaporated; Brian was left stunned and saddened.

Soon it’s time to meet the new next-door neighbors, a controlling lawyer named Douglas (James Feeley) and his emotionally abused wife, Margaret (Caitlin Kujawski Compton). Douglas and his wife are either vacationing or Douglas is working on a case, depending on who’s doing the talking. The conversation between them grows more convoluted, to the point where Brian and Dana wonder what is really going on next door. 

Before they have time to resolve their anxieties, Brian gets an unwelcome visit from the younger Kendrick (Coltyn Vondeylen). He’s there to proposition Brian about combining their efforts on a book. Brian can do the writing; Kendrick promises to execute the murder, right in front of Brian in the living room of his own home. His victim will be Douglas, who supposedly defended a murderer that got off on a technicality. Once released, the murderer went on to kill Kendrick’s wife. For that reason, Kendrick has been plotting to kill Douglas ever since. Horrified at hearing Kendrick’s story, Brian manages to extricate Kendrick from his home before he becomes an accomplice to a murder.

After Brian later brings Dana up to speed on his talk with Kendrick, she is distressed that he isn’t planning to call the cops – at least, not yet. Oddly, Dana takes the time to hire a housepainter (Teddi Gardener) to freshen up their place.

Off the Wall’s intimate theater space, which only holds about 60 seats, has recently been refurbished to allow audiences to sit on either side of the stage. This provides an ideal setting for a thriller, as people can gaze across the theater to see other’s reactions to the pivotal plot twists.

In this cleverly written and well-balanced piece of theater, the audiences are as likely to laugh as they are to gasp in horror at the goings-on in front of them. As the plot unravels, audiences are caught up in the action to the point where one wonders, who is telling the truth, and who is telling a convenient story?

The excellent cast, led by Robert Zimmerman as Brian and Coltyn Vondeylen as Kendrick, keeps the mysterious atmosphere going throughout the show. Vondeylen, especially, is a stand-out who must keep the suspense going throughout the production. Their efforts are supported by James Feeley, who adds a note of desperation or a calm, lawyerly confidence, depending on the requirements of the script, and Amber Regan as Dana, the most level-headed member of the cast. As Margaret, Douglas’s wife, Caitlin Kujawski Compton, is a capable performer despite the fact that she is written as mostly a one-note character. The same is true for Teddi Gardener, who appears as Hal, the housepainter, and later emerges as another important character.

The only downside to this effort is the agonizingly long blackouts between scenes. The technical director, David Roper, is only able to flip so many light switches on and off within a given time period. Meanwhile, the actors tiptoe carefully through the set and into the backdrop so as not to break their necks. This series of long blackouts is not a major detriment to the production, but one hopes that, with practice, the scene changes can be speeded up so as not to interrupt the action more than a moment or two. Otherwise, the show would make even the late Alfred Hitchcock proud.