Zany & Madcap “THE 39 STEPS”


DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM [email protected]

St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre opened the mystery/comedy farce “The 39 Steps” on April 15, 2016. The play, which can perhaps best be described as an homage to the great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, continues through May 8 on the Matuza Main Stage at 11 Old Mission Avenue.

Limelight’s version of the “The 39 Steps,” which was written by playwright-actor Patrick Barlow in 2005, premiered in London in 2006, and opened on Broadway in 2008, where it received both Drama Desk and Tony awards, and ran for almost 800 performances. For his zany fast-paced script, Barlow incorporated and adapted two previous versions, a 1915 thriller novel by Scottish writer John Buchan, and a 1935 film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock. Buchan had both a literary and a political career: his published works included many novels and non-fiction works, and beginning in 1935, he also served as the Governor General of Canada for almost five years. Hitchcock’s version is a classic that shows up on cable from time to time and may be available at public libraries.

A simple recap of this madcap show would go like this: A man is accidentally involved in murder and espionage and has an alliance with a disbelieving young woman who reluctantly provides aid while they are pursued by villains who believe the hero has obtained details of their plot to steal military secrets.

Sounds awful serious, but believe us, it is instead a wild campy ride, fast-paced and filled with tomfoolery. The play has only four official actors. The central character is the handsome and suave Richard Hannay, who is vacationing in London, who is portrayed by Will Pettinger in a fine performance. This is his debut at Limelight, and his first stage role since graduating from Bartram Trail High School a number of years ago. He is the only actor who portrays a single character throughout the play.

Gisella Nieto is a solid and versatile actress who was last seen at Limelight as one of the appealing ladies in “Boeing Boeing.” She has also appeared in Orange Park Community Theatre’s “Hotbed Hotel” and Theatre Jacksonville’s “Triangle Factory Fire.” In Limelight’s production, she appears in three different roles. At first, she is a beautiful and mysterious foreign spy who has some rather bad luck. Next, she is transformed into the teasingly demure wife of a crazed Scottish farmer. Finally, as Pamela, a lovely woman on a train, she becomes entangled with Mr. Hannay’s flight from the bad guys.

Zachary McLean and Matthew Whaley together play almost two dozen assorted male and female characters; Whaley is also the Stage Manager for the production. Both are accomplished physical comedians, and adept at British and Scottish accents. Mr. McLean is doing his fourth show at Limelight and was in “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Reflect Up?” back in 2013. Mr. Whatley appeared last season in Limelight’s “No Sex Please We’re British,” and earlier this season in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” When you see the show, you will no doubt identify one or more of the clever and colorful characters as a personal favorite. During the train scene, in less than two minutes, one plays a conductor, a policeman, and a traveling salesman, and the other an old woman, a salesman, and a newsboy. Don’t blink; you won’t want to miss the costume changes.

The four stage hands, who come on stage to move furniture, doors and other props, are part of the show and add funny moments. They include Kyle Thompson, Will Gooden, James Desmond, and Craig Wickless.

The set design is unique. A theatre box at the left of the stage is used during both the opening and closing scenes. Doors on wheels are moved about at times to indicate windows and walls, and Sound and Lighting Designer Miles Mosher uses dancing silhouettes on the rear wall to illustrate off-stage action. Costumer Alison Zador worked overtime to come up with the many changes of attire required, and she even tossed in a doomed mannequin. Kudos once again to the Stage Crew, who assisted in all the quick clothing changes backstage.

A hand as well goes to Beth Lambert, Limelight’s Executive Director, who stepped in as director of this frenzied madness when Gary Cadwallader, the scheduled director and a Limelight favorite, accepted a new position as Director of Education at Palm Beach Dramaworks and was unable to do this show.

We know that when you think Hitchcock, dark murder and mystery come to mind but this play is just for fun, not a deep psychological study — there is nothing at all objectionable other than a slapstick murder or two.

Limelight will be announcing the plays for its historic twenty-fifth season soon. Next up for the remainder of this season is a double bill of one-acts, “Laundry & Bourbon” and “Lone Star” playing June 3 —June 26, 2016, followed by a musical, “The Last Five Years” which will be on stage during July 29 — August 21, 2016. For reservations and additional information, call the box office at 904-825-1164 or visit

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.

october, 2021