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A Winter Chiller at The Bickford

Rare revival of Ira Levin’s “Veronica’s Room” is spine-tingling fun

Plays like “Veronica’s Room”—a somewhat twisted mystery-thriller currently dropping jaws at the —are a challenge for critics. Like the movies “The Sixth Sense” or “The Sting,” or stageworks like “Catch Me if You Can,” which was revived here a few seasons back, it’s hard to tell the reader what to expect without ruining the fun.

Rest assured, though, the only big reveal you will read here is that Artistic Director Eric Hafen has once again dug up a relatively unknown Ira Levin gem and given it a splendidly professional revival.

This time, he handed the director’s duties to Daniel LaPenta. Those familiar with his CV, which includes 30 years teaching in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Drew University and 14 years as chairman of that department, will expect a good time. And those who saw his previous directorial efforts here—including “Defying Gravity” and “Fiction”—will know they are in for something special as well.

That’s not to say “Veronica’s Room” is for everyone. Certainly not for children age 13 or younger (as dictated by the theater) or the squeamish. Again, too much information here could spoil things, but it’s safe to say that if you shy away from TV dramas like “Criminal Minds” or “Law & Order: SVU” you’ll want to move on, nothing for you to see here.

For the rest of us who like a good “whodunit” and a mind-bending “why-the-heck-are-they-doing-it-in-the-first-place,” “Veronica’s Room” is as welcome as hot soup and biscuits on a cold February afternoon.

Levin’s gripping, ripping yarn spins on a single, handsome set by Jim Bazewicz — the bedroom suite of an old house in a Boston suburb. The room seems frozen in time, a generation or two removed from the early 1970s, which the characters quickly tell us we’re in.

All four characters come in and give us the premise: An older couple (listed in the program as “The Woman” and “The Man”) with Irish accents and a young couple (“The Girl” and “The Young Man”) have just met. The older couple (Equity professionals Debra Whitfield and Rick Delaney, seen here last year as the ghost of John Barrymore in “I Hate Hamlet”) noticed that The Girl (newcomer and recent FDU grad Rosemary Glennon) is the spitting image of Veronica, a daughter in the family they have served for decades as caretakers in the house. They inform her that the only remaining member of the family, Veronica’s sister, is dying and experiencing a bit of dementia. She’s desperate to speak with the long-dead Veronica, and what a comfort it would be if The Girl would pretend to be Veronica, just for a little while.

The Young Man (Michael Manahan), The Girl’s new boyfriend, is a bit skeptical, but they go along with the charade in the spirit of compassion and adventure.

And that’s all of the story you’ll get out of me.

It would be risky to even describe the nuances of the terrific performances LaPenta has coaxed from all four actors, but suffice it to say each of them shows off a wealth of range and emotion.  LaPenta keeps a brisk pace (the pot boils over in less than two hours, including intermission), while lighting designer Roman Klima finds clever ways to support the mood.

A few screeching violins also creep into the mix as well, although they seem a bit cliché and aren’t really necessary to produce the goose bumps that fans of this genre are looking for. Levin is quite capable of doing that on his own. If you don’t know his work, warm up with videos of “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Boys from Brazil” or “The Stepford Wives.” Veteran Bickford patrons also can reference previous spine-tingling productions of “Dr. Cook’s Garden” and “Deathtrap.”

It certainly has been a warm winter, so if you’re overdue for a good chill, you can find it here without the expense of a lift ticket. Even better, for football haters (or, perhaps, resentful Jets fans), “Veronica’s Room” would be a great place to be on Super Sunday.

Veronica’s Room” runs through Feb. 12 at the Bickford Theatre, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morris Township. Tickets are $20 to $40. For information, call 973-971-3706 or visit bickfordtheatre.org.

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