Twenty minutes into the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of Dracula, I wrote in my notes, "Is this a case of excellent technique and flawed material?" Everything about this revival of the play that launched Bela Lugosi's career in America is faithfully rendered: The costumes are perfect, the stage design is marvelous, the actors to a person find something interesting to do with their characters and the special effects are used judiciously and dazzle in service of the story. Even the sound design, something that is normally only noticed when it's awful, is well thought-out and enhances what's happening onstage.
But this, as the notes in the program remind us emphatically, is a journey into terror. The setting is Dr. Seward's sanitarium in Purley, England. The year is 1926. And as we know before we even enter the theater, Dracula is the new next-door neighbor, and he's making himself comfortable by transforming Dr. Seward's daughter, Lucy, into a living dead girl. A brief and spectacular pantomime set against the lightning-slashed grand windows of the sanitarium opens the production and raises goose bumps as Lucy (Julia Coffey) drops her robe and steps off the balcony into darkness, priming us all for a night of terror as we watch her descent into mortal danger.
And barely ten minutes later, Dr. Seward (Richert Easley) gravely intones the line "Zoophagus. A life-eating maniac!" to the first big laugh of the night.
The appearance of said life-eating maniac, Renfield (Scott Schafer), gets more laughter. Schafer brings Renfield's more disgusting personal habits to life with wriggling ghoulishness. As the servant of Dracula, Renfield is a traitor to life. He devours insects with great relish, and Schafer's hollow voice hints at both madness and an intimate knowledge of evil. It's a well-nuanced performance, and yet most of the audience laughs at his lines. Is it that the dialogue is campy as written, or that this story has been parodied so many times since this material was written that we can't help but hear the dialogue as campy? Either way, laughter is the result.
Dracula taps into the fear and neurosis of the audience; eternal life at the price of one's soul is heavy stakes (no pun intended), and there are many metaphorical connections to be made from the wasting death that creates the vampire. In Hamilton Deane's and John L. Balderston's stage adaptation, directed here by Stephen Hollis, the dramatic tension in the first act comes from the players not knowing what's happening to Lucy. But with material this well-traveled, the audience knows what's happening to Lucy, and that tension is barely present for us. Only the performances can screw that tension to the sticking point. When the mood is consistently broken by laughter, that tension barely has a chance to develop.
It is a problem of material, not presentation, as the cast consistently generates that tension. Easley gives Dr. Seward a nice weighty presence as a man of science exasperated by a subject beyond his conception. Jeffrey Withers imparts a genteel urbanity to Jonathan Harker, Lucy's betrothed; he may have the hardest character to create, as Harker as written is mild-mannered, remote and a bit of a milksop. Withers brings all of those elements to the role, but he also shows the steel underneath the waistcoat when Harker is finally galvanized into action. Julia Coffey has almost as difficult a transformation to achieve. Lucy's feeble lassitude in the first half gives way to a vivacious lust for life in Act Two, as she's almost completely in Dracula's grasp. Her attempt on Harker's life is chilling. As the implacable Van Helsing, John Michalski is a bundle of frustrated energy; the Dutch vampire hunter knows what he's up against, and expresses a grisly relief at finally facing his greatest foe.
And what of Dracula? Kurt Rhoads has the suave mannerisms and voice down pat and his eyes are shadowy pits, smoldering with menace. When he takes Lucy to him at the end of Act Two, a blood-red moon shines down on the scene; Rhoads engulfs her with animal vitality, wrapping her in his cape and no one laughs.
Even better, this mood continues almost unabated throughout the rapid Act Three. The final confrontation is a spectacle worthy of Bram Stoker's original novel, with a narrow victory for the side of good and a brilliant, mind-boggling death for Dracula. Without spoiling the effect, Dracula transforms to ashes right before our eyes. How it happens is part of the thrill a thrill that might have been that much more lasting if we'd been scared out our skins relentlessly for the preceding 90 minutes.