For Better or Worse, “The Thing on the Doorstep” is a Shambling Beast

Artwork by Dan DeRosato

Artwork by Dan DeRosato

Presented by Salem Theatre Company
Adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft story
Directed & Adapted by Isaiah Plovnick

September 17 – October 4, 2015
Salem Theatre
90 Lafayette Street
Salem, MA, 01970
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Salem, MA) Devoted H.P. Lovecraft fans should prepare themselves for a sojourn to Salem before the end of this week. The Thing on the Doorstep has been lovingly adapted to stage, giving voice to one of the most foundational science fiction writers of the early twentieth century. What’s synthesized from the material is a creeping, gothic narrative, one that fights to stay true to the spirit of the original and hew closely to the author’s voice. The move from page to stage is a fraught one, though, and Lovecraft’s style (retro by the standards of the years he wrote in with a great deal of colonialist issues throughout) is ultimately clunky.

Daniel Upton (Andy LeBlanc) narrates the romantic life, changing persona, and deteriorating judgment of his best friend, eager student Edward Derby (Tom Rash), in a New England town in the early twentieth century. The play shows its hand early and often through Upton’s thorough, exposition-heavy monologues. Derby escapes a controlling family patriarch, Mr. Derby (Victor Brandalise), to marry mysterious heiress Asenath Waite (Kate Hamilton).

Asenath fits the “cruel succubus” trope with ease, reshaping Edward’s priorities and bending him to her will. Still, Hamilton gives us a complex performance, allowing Asenath to not simply be cruel but goal driven and perhaps the most capable character in the play. This frustrates Upton’s wife, Sarah (Kim Feener), a suffragette who can’t understand why a competent, young woman would continue to endorse the idea women are the weaker sex. The addition of Sarah Upton to the story is a smart move in the sense that it addresses themes of patriarchy and “female manipulation” baked into the story, giving the audience a host of readings to choose from. Is Upton just terrified of his friend changing now that he’s married? Is Edward stuck in an abusive relationship or is Asenath? Many of the mysteries are telegraphed early, but the ambiguous details kept me guessing.

The Thing on the Doorstep is full of plenty of references to other Lovecraft work, hinting at a world of elder gods and eldritch happenings. The text is rich. Sadly, the theatrical choices aren’t on par with the textual ones. The narration is often more hindrance than help and in the performance I saw, almost every actor managed to stumble over a line.

Certainly, the story itself could have been condensed from two acts to one. The slow-burn pacing of a Lovecraft story is a fickle thing to get right. For the perspective of a long time fan, I recommend this spoiler-heavy review of the play. It examines sexism, Asenath’s identity, and character development in fantastic detail.

Despite its clunkiness, this adaptation manages to muster more than a little charm. Tom Rash’s turn as Edward Derby is textured and there are genuine moments of fear and horror brought to the stage. By the end, Director Isaiah has distilled much of what makes Lovecraft work without replicating the author’s well-documented xenophobia, racism, and sexism.

Even if the production is uneven, I certainly think The Thing on the Doorstep has details fans of horror can appreciate. More casual fans may sidestep this play, but for those who have the means to be in Salem for its final performances, it certainly has enough for people to chew on.

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