Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre continues its season with the North American premiere of “The Shawshank Redemption,” taken from the same source material on which writer/director Frank Darabont based his memorable 1994 film.
This lively production, directed by Bob Paisley and showcasing a gifted, diverse cast, is performed on a sparsely decorated stage in a way that relies mainly on the actors and the script. The longer I write reviews, the more I appreciate this elemental style of anti-big-budget theater. Sometimes less really is more. But that’s just me.
Writer/actor Owen O’Neill and collaborator Dave Johns, also an actor, adapted Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” for the stage several years ago. The piece received its world premiere in Dublin in 2009.
The Irish O’Neill and the English Johns are veteran performers, a fact reflected in their knack for writing natural, easy-flowing dialogue which becomes a gift for any actor undertaking this show. The charismatic Keenan Ramos as Red, the lifer whose specialty is smuggling contraband into the prison, and the impeccably precise Chris Roady as Andy, the convicted murderer who applies himself with cunning to his eventual escape, anchor the ensemble, which includes solid performances throughout.
Notable supporting actors: Kevin Fewell, as Brooksie, the aging convict who runs the prison library; Tim Ahlenius as Hadley, a sadistic guard; and Evan Lovelace, as a young convict with information that might prove Andy’s innocence.
Quick plot refresher: Andy, who maintains his innocence after being convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, comes to Red with a series of odd requests, including a small rock hammer and a movie poster picturing Rita Hayworth, a beautiful film star of the 1940s and ‘50s. In the meantime, Andy has to contend with the Sisters, convict thugs who have a pattern of raping newcomers, even though (as Red tells us) they don’t consider themselves homosexuals.
Eventually, Andy, who was a banker before his conviction, begins lending his services to the guards by helping them with their finances, which gets the attention of Warden Stammas (a convincingly reptilian S.E. Perry). The warden has been skimming from government contracts and recognizes that Andy’s skills make him the ideal “chef” to cook the books.
So, yes, it’s a busy plot but central to to material’s effectiveness is the odd-couple friendship between Andy and Red. In this stage version that relationship strikes me as a bit more plausible than it did in the film, and for that give credit to Ramos and Roady. The actors find subtle levels to this unorthodox friendship, which ultimately acquires a mystical quality.
Director Paisley stages the action at a fairly crisp pace, although I must admit that in Act. 2 the play started feeling a bit long. His bare-bones approach is helped considerably by Karen Paisley’s lighting design and John Story’s sound effects and music.
Now for a confession: After the show I hopped on Google to learn if King’s plot was based on a real event. Apparently it isn’t. It all came from the same inventive brain that gave us “Carrie,” “The Shining” and “Pet Sematary.” So it should be no surprise if the story seems drawn less from real life than prison-movie tropes.
Even so, O’Neill and Johns saw in King’s novella the makings of effective theater. Their instincts were right.
“The Shawshank Redemption: runs through April 21 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3927 Main St. Call 816-569-3226.