The “Broken Hollow Banshee” was warmly received on its opening night premiere at Old Academy Players. It was a lot of fun.
The “Broken Hollow Banshee” was warmly received on its opening night premiere at Old Academy Players. Written and directed by Rob Rosiello, the play is set in 1955 and emulates an old-time radio thriller.
Nyiema Lunsford stars as Ivy Pembroke, a burnt-out writer of advertising jingles. When she learns her deceased mother bequeathed her a 600-acre estate in rural Broken Hollow, Pennsylvania, Ivy jumps at the chance to escape her deadening Manhattan life.
As she careens along country highways, Ivy is pursued by her silly jingles about sun-kissed salmon on the car radio. But as Ivy's new life grows still more haunting, a new range of emotions flood through Lunsford -- fear, curiosity, anger, horror.
Ivy is like a tree limb in a swollen creek, swept up in forces beyond her control. She wonders why her mother never told her about this estate. When Ivy arrives at Broken Hollow, she finds the town partially deserted. All windows are blown out by a recent storm, and the people she meets are curiously tight-lipped and lugubrious.
“The Broken Hollow Banshee” is a byproduct of the pandemic lockdown of 2020. As the lights went out on the American stage from community theaters to Broadway, director Nancy Ridgeway helped launch R5 Productions, a local radio broadcast network featuring both classic and original dramas.
Rosiello is presently the executive director of R5 and contributed several original plays to the project. Broken Hollow was first presented as a four-part radio serial on R5 Productions in October of 2021. Rosiello intended to celebrate the Golden Age of American radio.
In the Old Academy show, Rosiello encores some of his radio actors. Stephanie Rogers portrayed Ivy in the radio production. Here she plays Ivy's amiable sidekick, Gladys. Rogers doubles up to play the angry and estranged Dr. Margaret Pembroke so convincingly I struggled to recognize it was the same actress.
Tim Andersson returns to play Darius, the creepy estate caretaker. Sandra Hartman again plays Sister Mary Lucretia. She is a secretive woman, and Hartman makes you feel how deeply Sister Mary is burdened by the repressed emotions of a troubled past.
In addition to Lunsford, Rosiello also presents new actors in his live theater version. Josh Tull plays star-crossed Silas Pembroke, as well as minor characters -- an estate lawyer, a Broken Hollow local yokel. Jessi Russell is an eye-catching presence, both as the terrified Carrie Belle Pembroke and as the prissy local librarian with a mincing gait.
Program notes cite only Lynne Anne Donchez as "Period Hat Consultant," but one assumes Rosiello involved the cast in costuming because the dress here is exceptionally vivid. In a play full of fantastical events, costuming is needed to make the individuals feel credible. The production would fall flat without it.
American Radio Drama
The Golden Age of American radio (1930-1950) is an art form that awaits rediscovery, embracing all genres of theater but glorifying the thriller. With its sound effects and portentous silences, it gives the listener's imagination free play. Its strength lies in how much suspenseful storytelling is conveyed through well-timed audio effects -- all those car sounds, footsteps on gravel and creaking doors.
The Broken Hollow radio show has some sound effects and benefits from the strong music and sound design of Jim McIntosh. But playwright Rosiello's radio show is dialogue-driven. The palsy-walsy relationship between Ivy and Gladys is so succoring and problem-solving you never feel Ivy is in true danger. (Check out the R5 production of Broken Hollow on YouTube.)
The live theater version feels more effective. While it loses the radio's sense of a "serial," it is full of visual effects that help instill mystery. The set and scenic design of T. Mark Cole is spooky. Draped ghost figures seem to appear and disappear uncontrollably, and Rosiello's light effects help achieve two terrifying moments.
The “Broken Hollow Banshee” comes to an ironic, surprise finale. The project is an ambitious adventure and a lot of fun. And if you are anything like me, it will encourage you to revisit the classics of old-time radio -- “Suspense,” “The Shadow” -- so readily accessible on the internet.
Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Old Indian Queen Lane. “The Broken Hollow Banshee” will run through Nov 19. Tickets available at 215-843-1109.