A strong narrative is a resource commonly overlooked in the theater, which often dissipates its energies on states of soul and flounderings of emotions. The human being, alone among God's creatures, tells stories, and our basic need to know what is going to happen next can keep us on the edge of a theater seat, just as it kept our distant ancestors on the edge of a campfire.
You can currently experience this phenomenon in action at the Source Theatre, which has adapted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's grand tale of terror on the moor, "The Hound of the Baskervilles," for presentation on its tiny stage. Lord knows, obstacles abound. The settings for the play's 26 scenes are minimal, a change of signs (Holmes' Study, The Moor, Baskerville Hall) sufficing in most instances. The cast possesses wildly disparate skills. And the densely brooding atmosphere, as much a part of any Sherlock Holmes mystery as the good man's pipe, tends to ebb and flow along with the actors' erratic British accents.
Yet despite such drawbacks, the production commands attention. The script, adapted by director Bart Whiteman and the Source cast, is reasonably faithful to Conan Doyle's novel about a fiendish mastiff that literally frightens its victims to death. Although we may be given entirely too many details at the outset, and not enough at the end, which leaves a few threads dangling, the fundamental enigma has been left intact. Whenever the actors let us down, the simple power of the tale props us back up again.
The very sparseness of the Source production could, in fact, be a distinct asset (don't all good horror tales gain from being told in the dark?), if the cast as a whole were more persuasive. But this is yet another instance of the artistic haves warring against the have-nots. Walt MacPherson is properly unruffled as Dr. Watson, who alternately narrates the saga and acts in it. Cliff Jewell, as a naturalist, deftly keeps us wondering all evening long if he's crazed or simply exuberant. And Kerry Waters, as his sister, is as alluringly cryptic as the tarot cards she deals out in the play's best scene.
Unfortunately, Geoff Wilner's Sherlock Holmes has sloshy diction and the mind of a rusty trap. Chris Legg makes Sir Henry Baskerville a silly wimp. And as dour servants in Baskerville Hall, James Joseph Gregorio and Laurel Allen rely on the hoariest of Charles Adams characterizations.
Nonetheless, it is surprising just how much disbelief you are willing to suspend when the tale being told is a good one. With Doyle pointing the way, this production almost pulls off a late-night chase across the treacherous moor. But then Holmes opens his mouth, and the moor is miraculously transformed into an assemblage of black boxes.
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, adapted by Bart Whiteman and the Source Theatre Company; lighting, Lea Hart; with Geoff Wilner, Walt MacPherson, Patrick Miller, James Joseph Gregorio, Laurel Allen, Cliff Jewell, Kerry Waters, Chris Legg, T.J. Edwards. At the Source Theatre through Jan. 9.