The Desperate Hours enjoyed great success in its day, first as a novel in 1954, which won the Indiana Authors Day Award from author Joseph Hayes’s home state; then the 1955 Tony Award for Best Play and Best Direction for Hayes’s stage version of his novel, with Paul Newman as the leading bad guy; and then with 1955 Hayes’s film version, which won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best Screenplay, with Humphrey Bogart in Newman’s role.
I am happy to report that the current production of the play The Desperate Hours by The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves demonstrates that this script about the invasion of the home of a suburban family in Indianapolis by three escaped convicts who hold the family hostage still works. Hayes includes some sociological and class conflict references in an attempt to give the play more substance that just another melodrama; those comments can be both obvious and quaint today. But they don’t really interfere with the enjoyment of what is still today a very good, tense melodrama.
The three convicts have taken refuge in the Hilliard family home while they wait for Glenn Griffin’s girlfriend to show up with money and a car. Griffin is in charge of the escape, and Shane Rudolph convincingly combines intelligence, wiliness, resentment, and brute force in a performance that dominates the stage. Zach Pierson plays Hank Griffin, Glenn’s younger brother, with increasing youthful resentment of his brother’s leadership. David Zimmerman plays the hulking third escapee, Samuel Robish, not the sharpest knife in the drawer and more inclined to use force than intelligence.
Jim Bradley is Dan Hilliard, father of the captive family. Bradley plays Hilliard’s range well, facing moral decisions, comforting his family, standing up to Griffin. Shawn Chevalier’s Eleanor Hilliard holds up under it all pretty well, but there are moments. Mimi Brown’s 20-year-old Cindy Hilliard has a bold and smart mouth and deals gently with Hank’s timid attraction to her. Henry Alverson’s young Ralphie Hilliard wants to be a hero and has to be cooled down by his father to keep from fouling things up.
The police are played with authority and with rivalry by Kelly Hougland as Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard, in charge of the operation; Jessica Johns Kelly as exhausted Deputy Winston; Dennis Crump as consulting FBI agent Harry Carson; and Dennis Calvin as State Police Lt. Carl Fredericks, eager to rush the house.
Miranda Dereak visits the house as Miss Swift, Ralphie Hilliard’s teacher, checking up on her absent student. Alex Vito Fuegner masters two roles. Wayne Mackenberg appears briefly as the neighborhood trash man, and we hear John Gerdes as the voice of the radio reporter.
Bekah Harbison directed this tight production. Because many scenes alternate between the Hilliards’ home and the police headquarters, Harbison and her co-set designers Peggy Levin and Warren Frank wisely make use of the down-stage right area of the Webster Groves ample forestage for the sheriff’s office scenes. Harbison also designed the sound, Levin the costumes and props, and technical director Ryan Young handled the light design. Michael Barrows-Fitzgerald choreographed the convincing fights, essential in this play.
The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves’ production proves that The Desperate Hours remains a play worth doing and seeing.
Photo by Robert Stevens