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The 39 Steps Goes Off Without a “Hitch”cock!

Dial “M” for “Must-See”…wait, wrong movie…

Words by Nathan Jacques. Images courtesy of the Virginia Stage Company.


It was a dark and wintry night on the streets of Norfolk, Virginia. A frigid breeze chased us down Granby street to the elegant Wells Theater. Alleyways on all sides were abounding with eerie shadows and unsettling sounds. Who (or what) could have been lurking in them? Yes, the setting was reminiscent of those often pictured in stories and films, saturated in intrigue and mystery; what on earth was in store for us? As we arrived at the remarkably ornate auditorium, we were met with…an exceptionally written and uproariously clever comedy based on an exceedingly dark film and book. Wait, what?


The 39 Steps first teased the brains of readers as a novel by John Buchan, published in 1915 during the thick of World War I. The public is likely more familiar with the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of the novel, which is lauded as one of the best entries in Hitchcock’s filmography. Patrick Barlow adapted the story for the stage in 2005 and took quite the liberty in doing so – this new, improved version of The 39 Steps took one more step in a new direction; he went and turned it into a sidesplitting comedy that absolutely nails every gag and gaff within the script, well-earning each giggle and guffaw it elicits from its audience. It remains a classic tale of a man on the run, encumbered with the fate of his nation, but the refreshing, new tone of this staged version will prove itself as a classic, too. Unlike Hitchcock, I do not offer you a perplexing mystery; rather, let me offer a clear answer on whether you should see this production or not. To put it plainly, you’d have to be a “Psycho” to skip out on this one.


I am chuffed to inform you, dear reader, that Virginia Stage Company’s production delivers a farcically genius rendition of this very same play. Director Mark Shanahan, his production team, the cast, and crew all exhibit pure aptitude in bringing a tantalizing Broadway-quality performance to Norfolk audiences.

This cast does not suffer from “Stage Fright”. The principal, James Taylor Odom, is nothing short of spectacular. His performance as the hunted Richard Hannay oozes with charisma; with that said, Mr. Odom is every bit an athlete as he is an actor. The script calls for a seemingly insurmountable order of physical comedy but – have no fear – Mr. Odom makes it look easy! Don’t worry- the rest of the four-person cast, who all embody an exceptionally long laundry list of characters, are fantastic as well. Kristen Hahn offers an equally brilliant performance as various characters, including Pamela. Michael Di Liberto and Steve Pacek cover (literally) everyone else. Ms. Hahn, Mr. Di Liberto, and Mr. Pacek all offer performances for the ages, effortlessly morphing into different personalities that all manage to have distinct attributes and dialects. Never once did I find myself confused about who someone “was”. I did, however, find myself baffled about how such a miniscule cast could possess such incredible skill. Bravo, all – you got a standing ovation from me! If I keep going, you, dear reader, might become “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, so I will refrain from spoiling any surprises.

Such marvelous performances are impossible without the production teams and crews that make them happen. “I Confess” that costume designer Jeni Schaefer deserves special recognition for the Herculean effort of clothing all the quirky personas the cast members embody throughout the night. My hat goes off (ha!) to all the costume change specialists backstage as well, who go unnamed in the playbill.


Scenic designer D. Craig M. Napoliello and Assistant Scenic Designer Chen Wei-Liao take the “less is more” approach, and it pays off – such a fast-paced fiction requires a setting that can keep up with it. Richard and the cavalcade of characters that follow him move quickly, and the scenic designers have masterfully crafted a set that never once falls behind. A special round of applause is in order for Lighting Designer Alyssandra Docherty, Sound Designer Ryan Rumery, and Sound Engineer Shyloh Bailey, too – not a single cue felt “off”. In fact, many scenes where no set was present at all felt complete and full of life, thanks to well-timed sound cues and superb lighting schemes. The team director Shanahan pulled together is truly first-rate. I might not be able to keep myself from telling any “Strangers on a Train” I meet about how much I loved this production. It’s got me in a “Frenzy”.


The 39 Steps is one of Virginia Stage Company’s finest offerings thus far. I must admit, I have not seen the original Hitchcock film on which this play is based, but after seeing VSC’s version, I fear that the film might not hold my interest like this production did.


Verti-go” to the box office website right this minute and procure a ticket at https://tickets.vastage.org/5646.


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