Shadows, gaslighting and moral ambiguity in the noir classic Dial M for Murder at the Northlight Theatre

Photo by Michael Brosilow

I wasn’t sure how I would react to the Northlight Theatre’s production of Dial M for Murder. The set is a unit piece that never changes, there are only 5 actors, no singing, subtle lights and very little action. But I was equally as captivated by the dialogue-heavy noir piece as I have been at the flashy and loud contemporary shows I have found myself at recently.

Perhaps it is the pace of Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Dial M for Murder, originally by Frederick Knott, and made into a 1954 film by Alfred Hitcock, that keeps the audience on the edge of our seats throughout. The set, a classic 1950’s living room, is lit onstage as the audience enters the intimate Northlight space in Skokie. This gave me time to marvel at the beautiful curves of Mara Ishihara Zinsky’s set design of the staircase and ceiling that meet in an intriguing chandelier hanging above; I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I also had time to absorb the details of the set: the contrasting straight lines of furniture, the numerous purses strewn about in a way that I knew would be important later, and the number of ashtrays laid out on the tables revealing to the audience this would in fact, be a play noir.

While I must admit I don’t recall seeing the original Hitchcock film, I was prepared for the suspense and drama a play noir would bring. I was prepared for the intrigue, the violence, the misogyny, and the moral ambiguity of the characters. And I was prepared for the brilliant shadows cast on the white walls from Eric Watkins’ lighting design, the endless smoke trails from the cigarettes, the footsteps and door knocking and music, all designed by Christopher Kriz, that could make my heart start pounding in suspense before I knew someone was lurking outside the door.

Film noir was a style of film popular after World War II. These films, often in black and white, highlighted the anxiety rising out of the war and post-war era. The films capitalized on light and sound to build the suspense with slow-moving action and dialogue leading to plot twists. Questionable morals by many if not all of the characters often made it unclear who to root for and these films exposed the dark side of humanity. The characters often live in a state of continual and unfulfilled desire pushing their questionable actions.

This play opens with Margot Wendice (Lucy Carapetyan) entertaining Maxine Hadley (Elizabeth Laidlaw) in Wendice’s home. It becomes obvious quickly that these two women are or have been lovers, despite Margot’s marriage to Tony (Ryan Hallahan). What was intriguing to me about this storyline was not only the moral questions of the affair but that I was very certain that, in a film from 1954, the Hays Code (industry guidelines self-imposed by Hollywood to keep movies “clean”) would have forbidden a lesbian love affair. And I was right- in the original film, Margot’s lover is a man, but I loved this adaptation twist. Not only did it make the characters more interesting, but as the affair is made public later in the show, the tension is heightened from the original film, knowing that a lesbian affair in the 1950’s would have been even more scandalous.

It is revealed that Tony has known about the affair for over a year by the start of the play and while, at first, one might feel sympathy for him, he decides to enact his revenge by plotting to kill his wife…really, more to get her inheritance then for anything else. So whose morals are worse? Of course, the perfect murder plan goes wrong, there is a bumbling detective, a large amount of uncomfortable gaslighting, and some great plot twists that take pleasurable sorting out on the ride home.

I have already marveled at the great noir nods in the lighting, sound, and writing of the show. But the acting, under the brilliant direction of Georgette Verdin, is really what keeps the audience captivated throughout. Instantly, I was drawn in by Laidlaw’s Maxine. She moves about the stage with the perfect physicality of a femme fatale and I was mesmerized by her angles, lines, and smoke trails. More brilliant was watching the untangling of both Hallahan’s Tony and Carapetyan’s Margot. Each shows strength at the beginning with just the right touch of vulnerability in their secret-keeping. But as Margot faces her affair being revealed and the gaslighting by those around her, and Tony finds his perfect murder unwinding, the two actors break down before us on stage. Felipe Carrasco’s Lesgate is the perfect frat boy thug and what would a noir piece be without Nick Sandys’ bumbling Inspector Hubbard. No wonder it takes the brains of a woman to eventually untangle the mess.

Noir is a unique genre and when presented on stage is even more interesting and complicated, particularly in this fast-paced world. But Northlight Theatre’s Dial M for Murder does a fantastic job of reinventing this classic style for the world and stage today.  You will be stunned by its simple beauty, its captivating acting, and its heart-pounding suspense.

Dial M for Murder is now playing at the Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, until January 7th. Performance times vary; check the website at Northlight Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

One thought on “Shadows, gaslighting and moral ambiguity in the noir classic Dial M for Murder at the Northlight Theatre

  1. Sirs,
    When will people quit screwing around with classics ? It is a insult to the original author to try to make a statement using his work to get a point across. Is the director aware of what it takes to write a Broadway show? This show in its newly presented format will not be produced again. If the theater company wishes to make a statement., let them write their own show instead of using someone else’s work. It’s not so easy. Is it

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