'My Cousin Rachel' offers moments of wit, humor and stagecraft

A scene from the Gate Theatre's "My Cousin Rachel."

The Gate Theatre of Dublin, Ireland, is a renowned theatrical institution. It was here that such names as James Mason, Michael Gambon and Orson Welles cut their teeth. And the Gate has been no stranger to the Spoleto Festival, having roused Charleston audiences with recent productions of "Hay Fever" (2012) and "Present Laughter" (2010). This year the company is back with the gothic, moody, sometimes stiff "My Cousin Rachel."

The play is a tense exercise in suspicion and mystery, adapted adroitly by Joseph O'Connor from Daphne Du Maurier's 1951 novel. The book follows the Ashley family, namely Ambrose and his young cousin/ward Phillip. The play picks up as Phillip (played by Fra Fee), now 24 and on the verge of taking over the Ashley estate, mourns the death of Ambrose.

He blames the old man's death on his new wife, Rachel Ashley (played by Hannah Yelland). Ambrose has sent letters, warning not to trust anything Rachel says or does. Everyone warns Phillip not to listen, as a brain tumor has given cause to believe Ambrose mad. Phillip doesn't. He has his cousin Rachel brought to the estate to see her for himself, and does not hold on to his hatred of the woman for long.

He quickly (and rather expectedly) becomes improperly infatuated with his cousin, providing us with the meat of the play. We follow his questioning of her motives, which inevitably change to suit his ever-evolving feelings about her.

Not much can be said of the story, which takes us exactly where we expect to go. Don't expect any turn to surprise you much. It's more a character drama than a deep mystery.

The character work is where some of Rachel's best moments shine through. Fee provides Phillip with naive intensity that fuels and motivates some of his more erroneous actions, but occasionally leaves Phillip sounding a little one-noted throughout. Rachel is a well-layered character (as are all the women, as per one of the funnier jokes in the script). She is brought to life well enough by Yelland. Her vocal work, while giving credence to Rachel's Italian-born English speaker, is sometimes too stiff and too thick to portray the nuances her physical mannerisms and facial expressions are conveying.

There is a hilarious, wonderful play hidden in the two servant characters, John Seecombe (a delightful Bosco Hogan) and Thomas Connors (a touchingly simple John Cronin). Seecombe has been the faithful servant of both Ashley men for decades, and his witticisms and life theories provide many of the shows well-earned laughs. Thomas is a young man saved by the family from a terrible accident, who is fiercely loyal to young Phillip. His moment comes late in Act Two, as he defends a broken Phillip. It is a powerful scene.

Louise, the neglected best friend and potential love interest is well performed by Rachel Gleeson, but the character is given short shrift in the script and really is unnecessary to the proceedings. She's wearing a great dress, though.

Live theater needs something beautiful to behold on the stage, and director Toby Frow and set designer Francis O'Connor (who also made the fabulous costumes) have brought that to fruition with the use of three large windows for the sitting room set. The Ashley estate's main room is flooded with incredible light (big props to lighting designer Mark Jonathan) every time the shutters are opened, and the light changes based on the time of the day. The effect the first time this is done is stunning, and it never loses its appeal. Subtle lighting is used to accentuate the stage, but the bulk of the light work is done through these massive windows, lit from the other side to portray the sun's natural beams. Bravo.

Michael Smallwood is an actor in Charleston.