The monster in “The Night of the Hunter” is not a vampire, or a werewolf, or any kind of supernatural, European fiend. He is a true American type—a Bible-thumping, lying misogynist, with a lust for dollars and a weapon in his pocket. He’s scarier than any Halloween monster, because he’s real.
City Lit Theater regular Shawna Tucker has created a new stage adaptation of “The Night of the Hunter,” playing through December 3. Based on the 1953 novel by Davis Grubb and directed by Brian Pastor, it may be the most chilling thing you see on a Chicago stage this fall. It was inspired by the crimes of West Virginia serial killer Harry Powers, executed in 1932 for the murders of a widow and her three children from Park Ridge, Illinois, plus another widow from Massachusetts. The novel was made into a 1955 film starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters.
Like Charles Laughton’s movie, City Lit’s “Hunter” has a dreamy, fairytale quality, aided by Jeremiah Barr’s spare set and Liz Cooper’s lighting. The floor is painted like the dark blue waves of the Ohio River at night. The wooden backdrop, representing a house, has a door shaped like a dark, hulking creature. Adding to the bedtime-story feel is the narration by Tucker, who plays the tough and saintly Miz Cooper.
There’s nothing dreamy about the Preacher, brilliantly played by Bryan Breau. Breau’s Preacher is handsome and nattily dressed, with his grey suit and brilliantined hair. But his smile is malevolent, as grim and sharp as the knife he carries. On his fingers are tattooed letters spelling out the words “love” and “hate.” Breau’s Preacher is terrifying both when he’s pretending to be a man of God, and when he drops the mask.
When the action begins, the Preacher is sharing a jail cell with Ben (Alex Albrecht), a man doomed to hang for killing two men while robbing a bank. Ben has hidden $10,000 in stolen money, and the Preacher wants to know where. But Ben dies without giving up the secret.
So when the Preacher gets out, he starts courting Ben’s widow (Kendal Romero), who has two children, John (Jacqui Touchet) and Pearl (Mary Margaret McCormack). The Preacher is sure the children know where the money is hidden and starts a nasty campaign to get them to confess.
Both Touchet and McCormack do a terrific job playing children. McCormack somehow makes us forget her height and accept her as a five-year-old, coy and charming as an Appalachian Shirley Temple, clutching her doll. Touchet is sad and vulnerable as John, punished for refusing to warm up to the Preacher.
Also excellent are veteran actor Rich Cotovsky as the children’s “Uncle Birdie,” who unfortunately gets too drunk to help them much, and Romero as Willa, especially after the Preacher’s denunciation of sex turns her into a religious fanatic. Simmery Branch plays both a vain little girl and a nosy townswoman with infectious enthusiasm. Sheila Willis and Sean Harklerode are fun to watch as married couple Icey and Walt, who are fooled by the Preacher’s game.
The costumes by Rachel S. Parent are for the most part spot-on, depicting rural folk in the early thirties. One exception is Touchet’s hair, worn in a tight, thick ponytail that does not suggest a Depression-era little boy. This is distracting, particularly in the first act when the play’s illusion is being established. It might be better tucked under a cap.
“The Night of the Hunter” at City Lit, 1020 West Bryn Mawr (773)293-3682 through December 3.