“Things aren’t always what they seem” is the main theme of John Biguenet’s play about a strange old woman with magical powers. It’s a piece you want to praise, given how much and how cruelly old women with (or without) magical powers have been maligned over the centuries.
But warming to this show proves difficult; despite the resonant message, both the text and the performance are rather stilted, and as kitschy as the numerous chatchkas on designer Andrew Hammer’s splendidly detailed set.
Witch (Jenny O’Hara), dressed mostly in black and with a wild head of hair, lives by herself in her cobwebby cluttered cabin. A surprise visit from a long-ago acquaintance sparks revelations about how she came to be who she is: a shunned and feared individual, blamed for things she didn’t do and uncredited for the kindnesses she’s performed.
Spun in verse and delivered with a pronounced Appalachian accent, Witch’s tale meanders back to her youth, to a lover lost at sea and a despair that kindled the urge to make use of the special talents she was gifted with. At times her narrative extends beyond personal resentments, into the arena of social injustice: for example, when as a child she witnessed the murder of three black men by a crowd of white racists. Throughout, Witch displays a moral compass at odds with the common notion of cackling crones who wreak random mischief — instead expressing the horror or indignation of any right-thinking person confronted with wrongdoing.
All that would be super if our empathy were not continually waylaid by a kind of cloying cutesiness of the children’s storybook variety. The show is being presented to an adult audience after all. Under Stephen Sachs’ direction, O’Hara’s trained voice, accompanied by her skilled gesticulation, does indeed screech and cackle to make a point — not always but far too often. The “honest” moments come across as too orchestrated to be effective.
Tech values, under Scott Tuomey's technical direction, are top-notch. Hammer’s wonderful set, which includes props and set dressing by Misty Carlisle, along with Jennifer Edwards’ lighting and Peter Bayne’s original music and sound come together to create an ambience of spooky fantasia that, given the small restricted venue, would make even Disney proud.
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The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd.; through Nov. 30. (323) 663-1525, fountaintheatre.com.
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