STONEHAM — The title character of “Hamlet,’’ a fellow who knows a thing or two about the divided self, forthrightly acknowledges his dark side in that famous scene when he offers Ophelia helpful career advice (“Get thee to a nunnery’’) before asking her why on earth she would want to be a “breeder of sinners.’’
“I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me,’’ Hamlet declares, adding that he has “more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?’’
Dr. Henry Jekyll is also being torn apart from within, but the not-so-good doctor certainly manages to find the time, and the means, to act on his monstrous impulses in Stoneham Theatre’s stylish and suspenseful production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’’
Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella is directed by Caitlin Lowans with a perceptive eye for the forebodingly atmospheric touch and anchored by Benjamin Evett’s grimly compelling portrayal of Jekyll. This magnetic and intelligent actor, recently seen conniving against Mozart as Salieri in New Repertory Theatre’s “Amadeus,’’ delivers a performance that is informed throughout by what Stevenson once described as “that strong sense of man’s double being.’’
Jekyll hints at that doubleness early in the play, albeit couched in a professional context, telling medical students that they will be faced with cases where the choice is between “what you can do, and what you should do.’’ Evett’s Jekyll carries himself with an air of command undercut by the uneasy awareness that it’s only a matter of time before malign forces again push their way to the surface from the nether regions of his psyche — and the awareness, too, that those regions are not all that distant from the truth of who Jekyll really is.
And Edward Hyde, the homicidal brute into whom Jekyll metamorphoses whenever he drinks a certain potion? He is portrayed not by Evett but by four other actors, including Alexander Platt (the primary Hyde), along with Nick Sulfaro, Cheryl McMahon, and Dale Place. This interchangeable villainy is a reasonably effective gimmick, erasing any comforting notions that evil can be confined to one man and suggesting instead that demons dwell within us all. That’s the idea, after all, at the heart of Stevenson’s story, which is what gives it such enduringly unsettling force. Hatcher’s adaptation also contrives to give Hyde a measure of sympathy in a scene with Jekyll that inverts the usual good-bad dynamic, to intriguing effect.
Less defensible, if dramaturgically understandable, is Hatcher’s addition of a love interest for Hyde: a chambermaid named Elizabeth who faces steadily escalating peril and is played by the poised and graceful Esme Allen. Elizabeth’s attraction to Hyde and her subsequent loyalty to him are implausible in the extreme, made even more so by the relentlessly deranged demeanor adopted by Platt, who plays Hyde in their scenes together.
As if to evoke not just late 19th-century London but also the moral fog surrounding Jekyll’s behavior, a haze often hangs over the Stoneham Theatre stage.
Jekyll says of Hyde that “he was his appetite, bound into a red fist,’’ and that color is prominent in the design scheme of the production. The centerpiece of David Towlun’s set is a reddish door, signifying Jekyll’s passage between two worlds; the door is charcoal-black at the bottom, as if singed by fire. (A cast member knocked into it at the performance I attended, making it wobble precariously.) Lighting designer Jeff Adelberg periodically bathes the stage in a hell-red glow.
As the action ranges from drawing rooms to a laboratory to a morgue and beyond, the cast throws large shadows on the wall behind them. In time, the distinction between Jekyll and his shadow self begins to disappear, as the doctor becomes unable to control the emergence of Hyde. In one of the most memorable scenes in this fine production, when Jekyll is told of a terrible crime committed by Hyde, the expression on Evett’s face communicates a blend of horror, fear, and a pulverizing self-knowledge. At that point, Jekyll might well be wondering who is the shadow and who is the man.