This past weekend, Theater Red opened Writer/Director Angela Iannone’s historical drama This Prison Where I Live. The lovingly-researched drama focuses on a late 19th century actor who survives an attempt on his life while performing onstage. It’s a briskly-paced drama with two men at the center of a small ensemble on an intimate stage.
Think of it as a Historical Buddy Drama
Because of the nature of the people involved, it’s easy to get bogged-down in the weightiness of the history behind the play. Strip it of everything else and it’s the story of an actor haunted by the uninvited ghost of his late brother...who was also an actor. Iannone’s script works really, really well as a family drama centered on two people. That one of them happens to be dead gives the story a bit of intriguing depth. The ghost is, among other things, trying to keep his living, breathing sibling alive and well. The living brother would far rather be spared the presence of his late brother...partially because he’s annoying but mostly because he killed President Lincoln.
Cory Jefferson Hagen is a delight as John Wilkes Booth. He radiates gentlemanly southern charm in the role of a very passionate man. Corey Jefferson Hagen plays with clever intricacies of characterization in the role of an actor who might have been far too self-confident to ever become truly great, but possessed a magnetic charm that awarded him great adulation. There’s a gentlemanly lack of restraint in him that edges on the sociopathic, but he cares deeply for his brother. Corey Jefferson Hagen does a brilliant job of rendering all the subtleties of one of U.S. history’s greatest villains.
Jared McDaris deftly wields precision and perfection in his portrayal of the brother haunted by the ghost of an assassin. Edwin Booth was a legendary actor in his own right with tremendous and heroic dedication to a life in the theatre. McDaris plays a haunted man with relentless focus tempered by passion. McDaris and Hagen have a quick chemistry about them that propels the dialogue. The two actors manage to render a great familiarity between the two actors they are portraying. There’s clever wit to their verbal dueling that expresses a great affection through constant tension. It’s great fun to watch.
Marcee Doherty-Elst lends support to the family dynamic as Edwin’s wife Mary. She’s haunted too, but not by any visible ghosts. Trauma has left her something of an earthbound ghost herself...just another figure to haunt Edwin. Doherty-Elst glides across the stage in an affectionate haze that feels disturbingly lifeless at the core. There is some suggestion of deeper darkness in the script as John strongly suggests that Edwin distance himself from her. There’s a kind of dormant menace in Doherty-Elst’s portrayal of Mary’s love for Edwin. It adds a great deal to the dramatic dynamic of relations between the two brothers.
Brandon Haut makes a single appearance onstage as an admirer of Edwin’s who wishes to engage him in conversation. Plagued as he is by the ghost of his brother, Edwin is scarcely in the frame of mind to entertain conversation from a stranger. Things get rather conversational without ever being entirely uncivil. That there is tension at all in the scene shows a great deal of finesse on Haut’s part. He’s a very calm man, but there is a machinery beneath it all fueled by a passion that Haut wields quite well.
Andrea Burkholder rounds-out the cast as the vision of Edwin’s first wife. There’s sweetness and concern in her presence, but she is elusive.
Iannone keeps the pacing of the drama slow and soulful throughout. There are a few moments of slightly stiff dialogue here and there, but the overriding presence of the drama feels quite authentic. Where there is unintended stiffness, it might be due to a dizzying amount of detail and symbolism Iannone has carved into the drama. Iannone crafted this thing like a Swiss clock, which sometimes runs the risk of approaching a kind of unintended soullessness. Thankfully (and no doubt by design) the thematic and historical intricacies of the script are largely ticking around in the background of an otherwise thoroughly satisfying fraternal drama. There are A LOT of things moving around in the script thematically that would be far too easy to get lost in, but at its heart, this is a really engrossing drama about a man and the ghost of his late brother.
Theater Red’s This Prison Where I Live runs through Sep. 9 at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater Red online.