City Lit’s Night of the Hunter is a dark tale based on a true story

Photo by Steve Graue

In 1932, in Moundsville, West Virginia, a slick con-man serial killer named Harry Powers was hanged at the state penitentiary. The memory of this event caused then-twelve-year-old Davis Grubb to write his most well-known novel, The Night of the Hunter, to tell the story of how a man like this could infiltrate a quiet, faithful village and home in order to satisfy his greed and bloodlust. City Lit’s adaptation of the book, written by Shawna Tucker and directed by Brian Pastor, is a tense, well-crafted tale that reveals the darkness of one man’s soul as he preys on an innocent family and town.

Tucker narrates the play and appears in the last section as Miz Cooper, who is ultimately the hero, as she is the only person not taken in by Powers’ good looks and smooth talk. Long before we meet her, though—and this is indeed a rather long play, clocking in at 2:20 including a short intermission—we are introduced to the other central characters.

Powers, also known as Preacher, is played slickly by Bryan Breau as a brilliantly psychotic killer/thief whose agenda is only to profit himself. Briefly incarcerated in the local prison, he finds that his cellmate is Ben Taylor (Alex Albrecht), who is awaiting execution for bank robbery and murder. Albrecht’s portrayal is the opposite of Breau’s. His Ben is calm, controlled, and sincere. He did the thing he has been convicted for, and he knows it, but he hopes that somehow his sacrifice will help his wife Willa (Kendal Romero), son John (Jacqui Touchet), and very young daughter Pearl (Mary Margaret McCormack): prior to being hauled away by what Pearl calls the “blue men” (uniformed police), he confides the secret location of the $10,000 he stole to John with the admonition that he shouldn’t touch it or tell anyone about it until he is old enough to use it to get away with his sister.

As slimy as Powers is, especially after (following a pattern he has established elsewhere) he insinuates himself into the town by pretending to be a man of God and then into the life and the home of Ben’s family, the widow and her children are genuine and honest. Only John, burdened by his dead father’s secret and expectations, sees that something is wrong when this new man enters their lives, especially when Powers starts openly asking him if he knows where the money is. (He tells his mother this but, already under Powers’ spell, she does not believe him.) Still, he knows that he has to protect his little sister at all costs.

Romero is one of those performers who can seem utterly guileless; when her friends and employers (Walt and Icey, played by Sean Harkelrode and Sheila Willis, standing in for the citizens of the whole town) advise Willa that the Preacher would make a fine husband and father, she at first says she is not interested in remarrying but then acquiesces to the notion and slides right into Powers’ trap. (Later, as one of Miz Cooper’s rescue children—along with Simmery Branch’s Ruby—she parlays her sweet demeanor and that lack of guile into a strong portrayal of a prepubescent girl.)

Touchet, as John, has the difficult task of knowing the world’s dangers far too young. His brooding, internalized attitude is easily declaimed by Powers as being “bad,” further allowing the evil intruder to have his way. It’s to Touchet’s credit that, though they do nothing to hide their ponytailed hair, it’s easy to see them as the protective older brother. McCormack, on the other hand, gets to play her initially 4-year-old character with as much lack of inhibition as any small child: we see her leap into adults’ arms, knowing they will catch her; we watch as she plays, investing sticks and other objects with anthropomorphic qualities. We see her go from tears to joy (or the other way around) in an instant; it’s as if McCormack is absolutely channeling a preschool-age child.

Outside of all of this is Rich Cotovsky’s Uncle Birdie, an old man beaten down by life and too much alcohol who nonetheless becomes John’s confidant while he fixes up Ben’s old skiff. You wonder throughout the play whether this broken man might in the end be able to save John and Pearl. This isn’t that kind of play, but at least he gifts them a working boat. This is the kind of play likely to come down to sweet, gentle, Christian Miz Cooper and her stand-your-ground shotgun vs. evil faux-Christian psychopathic serial killer Powers and his quick, deadly switchblade.

Pastor’s direction makes all of this complex plotline move crisply and clearly. Characters move between past and present versions of their own stories smoothly and gracefully. And though we know from early on a lot of what is going to happen, he creates so much tension that you’ll only feel that 2:20 running time if you’re prone to think about it. Jeremiah Barr’s simple unit set works beautifully with Liz Cooper’s lighting to indicate many different locations, while Petter Wahlbäck’s music and sound design perfectly add to the tone of each scene.

In the end, The Night of the Hunter plays like a thriller, and danger to children is always a tremendous hook, but today’s audiences won’t be able to help thinking about how easy it was—and is—for a con man with no scruples to worm his way into their good graces. Powers embodies a deceitful, malevolent take on what today we’d call dissociative identity disorder if he were not faking the whole thing, as he slides easily between the man of God everyone sees and the twisted psychotic man he is inside. Breau uses that dichotomy perfectly to show how such a monster can easily smile his way into adults’ hearts while remaining perfectly transparent to a skeptical child or a true woman of faith…or a drunken old man.

The Night of the Hunter is a powerful, provocative serial killer drama told from very personal and relatable perspectives. Pastor and his cast invite us into this world and make it feel real; it’s a show that is tremendously easy to recommend.

The Night of the Hunter is a City Lit production now playing in the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago through December 3. Performance times vary; check the website. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com

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