Mix romance, money, motives, and mystery, and you have “My Cousin Rachel,” playing weekends at Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell through Saturday, April 7. The play, adapted by Diana Morgan for the stage, is based on Daphne Du Maurier’s classic novel of the same name, and parts of the play’s dialogue come directly from the novel. Du Maurier wrote the novel after a trip to Italy but set it in Cornwall in a manor house. The novel, written in 1938, was first published in 1951. (The delay is unexplained.) It became a movie in 1952 starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. In 1982 the BBC made a production for TV in association with 20th Century Fox.
The novel was billed as a mystery novel, says co-producer Julia Thick, but the play is billed by Dramatists Play Service as a romantic drama, and the movie was billed as a romance (that’s Hollywood). Off-Broadstreet’s production poster adds “gothic” (meaning “mystery”). All fit.
A bit of back story is necessary. Philip Ashley (Patrick Roy Albanesus, a Hamilton resident making his OBT debut), the lead character, an orphan, was raised by his bachelor uncle and surrogate father, Ambrose. Ambrose (who does not appear) has gone to Italy for his health and has quickly met, fallen in love with, and married a much younger woman, Rachel (OBT veteran and East Windsor resident Sabrina Rose). Philip, now 24, stands to inherit Ambrose’s estate upon his death once he (Philip) comes of age, 25.
Philip has received a frantic note from Ambrose urging him to “come quickly. Before it is too late. There is no one I can trust. Why does she always lie? Rachel, my torment.” Ambrose is afraid Rachel is poisoning him. By the time Philip arrives in Florence (this is late 19th century: no phones) Ambrose is dead, and Rachel has gone. As the play opens Philip has just returned from his fruitless trip to Florence.
Philip’s uncle and Ambrose’s close friend, Nick Kendall (OBT veteran and Princeton resident Curtis Kaine), arrives with his daughter, Louise (OBT newcomer, Sarah Krauss of Hopewell), Philip’s childhood friend. Louise has her own designs on Philip. The three discuss Ambrose’s death.
Rachel unexpectedly comes to Cornwall, over the objections of Seecombe (Bill Holt), the all-around servant, who is used to running a household of bachelors and doesn’t want a woman coming. Even the title, “My Cousin Rachel,” seems mysterious as well as ironic. Rachel was not a cousin familiar, distant, or even long-lost to the Cornwall group. She is simply Ambrose’s widow until she mentions, midway into the first act, that her maiden name was Ashley. Nothing more is made of this. She has come to return Ambrose’s clothes and books.
Wearing a stunning long black satin dress (costumes for the women by Arlene Kohler and for the men by Ann Raymond), Rachel tells of Ambrose’s death from a sort of brain fever and speaks of how she and Ambrose planted a tree and planned to have a sunken garden. Philip, who is falling for the glamorous Rachel, takes on the project. She comments generously that she and Philip shared Ambrose’s heart.
We learn that before he died Ambrose made his will over to Rachel — but it wasn’t signed.
The beauteous and charming Rachel is also kind and gracious, making gifts of Ambrose’s things. She has learned the names of the horses and dogs. Urged to stay on, she makes the house literally reflect a woman’s presence by having a mirror hung. Even Seacome is won over by the gift of Ambrose’s jacket.
By Act 2, some three months later, Philip has his birthday, has come into ownership of the estate and the family jewels, and is free to make gifts of them. Now completely smitten by Rachel, Philip gifts her with jewels and proposes marriage. She leads him to bed. Soon Philip comes down with an illness like Ambrose’s.
Every other character in the play watches and reacts to Rachel. Robert Thick’s ever-excellent direction keeps the play moving. While the play is a change from OBT’s usual fare of comedies and musicals, here’s a play to challenge your mind, your morals. What is acceptable behavior? Do you give retaliation a pass? Did Rachel murder Ambrose? Why?
Rainaldi (Patrick Andrae of Jamesburg and another OBT veteran), Rachel’s friend and more, from Florence, arrives late in the play and presses Rachel to have the new will signed.
“My Cousin Rachel,” with its play of emotions and its underlying suspicion (from Ambrose’s letters), is continuously intriguing. In the second act, tighter than the first, key questions are raised. Is Rachel only after riches? Accusations fly. The actors, always believable, show their fire. The twist ending is a shocker. The audience at the performance I attended gave the play a cheering, standing ovation.
“My Cousin Rachel,” through Saturday, April 7, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. 609-466-2766.