The actors bring subtlety and sincerity.
The year is 1949. Helene Hanff (Stephanie Monday) is a hotheaded New York writer on the hunt for a rare book. Decades before Amazon or even Google, Helene is left to comb the dog-eared pages of a catalog from Marks & Co., a bookseller in far-off London. She sends a letter with her request, but in return she receives more than she bargained for.
Helene Hanff's autobiographical 84 Charing Cross Road tells the story of a 20-year friendship, formed across the Atlantic with a man she'd never met. The play spans more than two decades and is told almost entirely through monologue. It is performed on a single, breathtaking set, designed beautifully by Joel Stone. This Strollers Theatre production opened Thursday night at the Bartell Theatre.
It's hard to choose a standout actor, as there isn't a weak link in the cast. Stephanie Monday doesn't waste a movement as Helene. She is larger than life, but her performance has a grace and control that are mesmerizing. Steve Myck is well-cast and likable as the book merchant Frank Doel, though his portrayal lacks the subtext that could make the relationship come alive.
The supporting cast is stellar, but Andrea Kleiner is particular radiant as Cecily Farr, who works at the bookstore. She brings an infectious energy to a role that could have been simpering and offers an appealing vulnerability beneath it. Kathy Lynn Sliter shines, as store employee Megan Wells, with smart comedic timing and depth a lesser actor could have missed. Rebecca Raether has the unique challenge of playing two roles, an American actress and a British clerk, but she differentiates them well, bringing a sense of history to characters we only briefly meet. Everyone's accents are surprisingly strong, but Raether's is particularly good.
Al Hart and Don Dexter have smaller supporting roles and they handle them well. The show involves a lot of silence and pantomime during extended monologues, and this is something I often find distracting, as inexperienced actors tend to overplay these scenes, but the actors here rise to the challenge with subtlety and sincerity.
The show's music, selected by Liz Angle and Karla Weber, does a nice job of setting the period and tone, and Sonia Ramirez's costumes are lovely. Kathleen Tissot designed props, and my date and I spent half the intermission remarking on them. I appreciate a minimalist set when appropriate, but here the warm, cluttered feel of the set is just right.
Erin S. Baal's direction takes what could have been a series of stilted monologues and weaves instead a compelling, heartwarming tale. 84 Charing Cross Road is, at heart, a love letter to the written word. It is a play about the chances we take and the chances we miss.