Chicago Theater Review: THE SUNDIAL (City Lit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 11, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

A VERY DISPENSABLE DOOM

Famed for her sardonic 1948 short story “The Lottery” and the scary novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson was a Gothic gadfly in the Eisenhower Era, full of apocalyptic post-war angst and Cold War panic-peddling. She industriously penned fright-freighted tales of vague dooms and specific social dysfunction (including one village’s annual ritual human sacrifice).

Not as well known (for reasons a dramatization makes clear), Shirley Jackson’s 1958 novel The Sundial brings some suspense but more mystification to the silly saga of a too-proud family. The entitled and idiotic efforts of the Hallorans to prevail against an unseen nemesis ultimately consume them and the townspeople who hate them. Jackson’s credo “I delight in what I fear” should yield delicious danger—but we only get formulaic fear-mongering, unearned terror marred by unintended laughs.

Adapted (too faithfully) and directed (with a clumsy inability to separate humor from horror) by Jackson devotee Paul Edwards, City Lit’s ponderous 150-minute world premiere pursues the paranoid plot like a stupid bloodhound unable to distinguish valuable scents from irrelevant ones. The Sundial takes its title from a supposed symbol of stability: Presiding over a coming catastrophe, the sundial bears the cryptic question “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?” (The iron instrument will finally witness the deposition of the novel’s second human sacrifice.)

Not to get drawn into the paltry particulars of Jackson’s scare tactics (a reflection of the 1950s’ organized dread of nuclear war), Jackson’s obsessive focus is on the deeply flawed and repellently unpleasant Halloran dynasty: Patrician isolates infesting Jackson’s patented “big old house” (a walled estate surrounded by stones and symbols), the Hallorans are mourning the never-explained death of heir apparent Lionel–whose tumble down the grand staircase cannot be taken as a simple accident. Married to Lionel’s invalid father (Kingsley Day) and usurping his position and wealth, wicked Orianna (Sheila Willis) is queen bee to this evil hive, ruling the roost and finally wearing a literal crown in unrepentant hubris.

Using voodoo, arbitrary evictions and firings, witless mockery, and book burnings of Halloran House’s once-cherished library, this narcissistic matriarch alternately bullies and exploits the brood who loathe her. Chief among them is Frances, aka “Aunt Fanny” (Morgan McCabe), her husband’s seer of a sister: Aunt Fanny’s dead dad, an exploding window and a spectral snake all warn of a coming calamity to be avoided by remaining in the haunted house. We also encounter Mary Jane (Teresa Champion), Lionel’s taciturn widow; Orianna’s dollhouse-loving granddaughter Fancy (Lauren Mangum); her old friend Augusta and Augusta’s daughter Julia (Stephanie Monday and Nora Lise Ulrey); and Orianna’s flagrantly flaunted lover Essex (John Blick) who’s clumsily adored by Aunt Fanny. Then there’s a Cassandra-like second cousin Gloria (Philena Gilmer) who stares into a smudged mirror, prophecies that the cursed clan will be wiped out by the end of August (to be replaced by a vision of Eden), and dreams of escaping with Essex to a real life. But foul and foolish fate has other plans.

For no discernibly dramatic reasons Jackson throws in a local cult of “True Believers” who trust in salvation via “[flying] saucers from Saturn” and who foresee endless darkness in the town’s future. We also endure an ugly episode where Julia tries to escape the manse, gets abused and injured, and somehow crawls back to the unhappy abode. It’s just more inexplicable antics from Jackson’s uninterestingly neurotic, spoiled and eccentric survivalists.

It’s impossible to condense this sprawling and overplotted novel without creating clutter: The Sundial needs concentration. Even then the characters are little better than a poor man’s Tennessee Williams.

But Edwards’ staging does more harm than his dramatization. He ignores the cardinal rule that a play can be funny or scary but not both or they cancel each other out. With its crude camp (there’s some utterly gratuitous drag), screaming hysterics, and melodramatic histrionics, this mannered and rushed (but never urgent) Sundial, fails to either frighten or amuse. Free-floating fear and cumulative boredom can’t mix. A play about a plutocratic asylum cries “Wolf!” (about the end of the world) so often that Doomsday can’t come soon enough. And, when it does, it’s as anticlimactic as asparagus.

photos by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography

The Sundial
City Lit
Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave.
Fri & Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on February 12, 2017
for tickets, call 773.293.3682 or visit City Lit

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Terry McCabe January 12, 2017 at 11:54 am

One small factual correction: The show’s running time is 137 minutes (which includes the ten-minute intermission), not 150 minutes.

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