Night Watch locks in viewers
The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Unable to sleep: Fear and doubt play across the face of Elaine Wheeler, portrayed by Eliana Rowe, after she says she has seen a murder from the living-room window of her upscale Manhattan home. Wheeler, a sophomore, stars this weekend in the Guilderland High School production of Lucille Fletcher’s thriller Night Watch.
GUILDERLAND — What is real?
That is the difficult question posed by the thriller Night Watch, which comes to the Guilderland High School stage this weekend.
No play is ever real in the sense that it is performed, signifying the author’s, director’s, and actors’ ways of interpreting and representing reality.
But this 1972 play by Lucille Fletcher — a screenwriter best known for Sorry, Wrong Number — takes the question a step further with a lead character, Elaine Wheeler, who may be crazy and imagining things, like a murder in the house across the way from hers. Or she may be sane and manipulating those around her.
“I saw him. He was bleeding,” Elaine, an heiress, tells her friend and nurse, Blanche. Elaine says she saw the murdered man from the window of her living room. “He was right there. Right there in the window.”
Eliana Rowe plays Elaine with intensity. Her edginess jumps off the stage. She plucks at her clothes — her wide eyes beseeching one moment and scornful the next. She functions like the moon, pulling the cast to rise and fall like the tide with her tempo.
Blanche, played by Katie O’Hehir, throws a cloak of cool sophistication over her friend’s worries. She tells of someone she knew in London who, also out the window, saw a dead woman “so gorgeous it broke his heart to notify the police.”
“Your forehead is just like ice, darling,” Blanche frets as she administers more pills.
Elaine’s sleepless days and nights blend into one. She continues to call the police, who find nothing, and her wealthy husband, John, a stockbroker, arranges for psychiatric help.
“Martini?” asks her solicitous husband, played by Avery Maycock.
“Gin doesn’t really mix well with tranquilizers,” his miffed wife replies.
“Usually, the plays we do are humorous,” says Marissa Siino, one of three student directors working with English teacher Andy Maycock. “This one is a drama…You are locked in, trying to put together all these little pieces of information…As the audience, you’re trying to figure out your own story.”
Watching a rehearsal earlier this week, Siino went on, “Mr. Maycock listens” to the viewpoint of “a kid who has acted” — herself.
One contribution Siino made was bringing more authenticity to the dialogue.
“People were talking as if they were on stage,” Siino explained. “Mr. Maycock and I appreciate when you feel like you’re in it,” she said of the audience, “like a conversation, instead of like reading lines. Now it feels more real.”
Maycock called the play “an experiment.”
The Guilderland Players communicate through a Facebook page, he said, and, after he posted a message there about doing Night Watch, he recalled, “Somebody said, ‘It sounds like Rear Window.’ Somebody else said, ‘It’s like Dial M for Murder.’ Kids know these movies.”
Despite the excitement, Maycock had some doubts when he saw the enormity of Elaine’s role. “So much rests on her shoulders. I thought, ‘If I cast the right Elaine, I’ve got it made.’”
With sophomore Eliana Rowe, Maycock said, “I lucked out. She is tremendous.”
“In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to act,” said Rowe. “I’m trying to be realistic,” she went on, noting she didn’t want to sound like a girl who was sure she’d make it on Broadway.
Rowe said, however, that she was sure acting would always be part of her life, even if it is community theater.
When she was experiencing problems as an eighth-grader, Rowe said, “I found being someone else so much easier.”
She went on, “I’m still sort of an introvert but acting helps me be someone else — I can be loud and crazy.”
This is her first time with a lead role, which she finds exciting.
Rowe said of the character Elaine, “I think she’s really misunderstood. People think she’s not important because of her insomnia. They think she’s clueless. She’s nervous because she doesn’t want to be sent off to a clinic in Switzerland.”
“I can relate to Elaine,” Rowe said, explaining she knows what it feels like to be nervous. She added with a wide smile, “I’m not a psychopath.”
Rowe went on, “When I tried to plan out exactly how Elaine would be” — for instance, focusing on details of how to portray her nervousness, she felt too constrained.
“I just pray about it and then go for it on stage,” she said, adding, “Everyone in the cast has been helping me…We all talk to each other and have fun together. I couldn’t do it by myself.”
Elaine is at the center of a web with many strands. “It leads to some open endings,” said Rowe. She went on about the play, “It is very suspenseful…It keeps you on the edge of your seat….You don’t believe who it is at the end. You believe it’s everyone.”
One of the characters who punctures the tension is the Wheelers’ German maid, Helga, played by Kiera DeCotes.
“She is the comic relief of the show,” says DeCotes of her character. “She’s very opinionated…The only one she likes is Elaine.”
DeCotes, who is of German heritage, said Helga’s accent came naturally to her although she doesn’t speak German herself.
She has an impeccable sense of timing, cutting into the fast-paced Manhattan dialogue with her own viewpoint.
A junior who sings and plays the flute, DeCotes hopes to pursue a career as a performing musician. She relishes her current role as a scene-changer.
“Helga walks in and out all the time; it changes the mood,” she said. “One minute, they’re yelling at each other, and then, the next minute, I walk in with a tray.”
Another comedic part is that of the Wheelers’ nosy neighbor, Curtis Appleby, a journalist, played by senior Cody Ingraham. “He brings levity to every scene,” said Maycock, “asking the wrong questions and saying the wrong things. A number of kids have said that part is written for Cody.”
John Wheeler is played by Maycock’s son, Avery, who has watched his father’s plays since he was a kid.
“It’s a tough role,” said the director. “He has to be supportive, talk his wife down from ledges — not real ledges, but emotional ledges.”
At auditions, all three student directors said Avery was the one for the part; “I didn’t even have to decide,” said Andy Maycock, adding, “I’m probably tougher on him than anyone else.”
Maycock is pleased with the way the student actors have brought a difficult script to life.
“I prefer working with bright actors rather than trained actors,” he said, likening trained actors to performers at a recital, merely singing “instead of thinking about it.”
He also credits his three student directors — MaryGrace Graves; Hannah Rowe, Eliana’s sister; and Siino — for the play’s success. “They’re good at giving notes…When we stop in a rehearsal, they’re tougher on the kids than I am. They can say things I couldn’t.”
Asked who should see the play, Eliana Rowe said, “Everyone — except little children.”
Maycock agreed, “There are some dark things in it.”
Neither wanted the ending revealed.
“It pulls out the rug from under,” said Maycock.
He concluded, “Anyone who appreciates drama and students working really hard should see it.”
Night Watch will be performed on Thursday, Nov. 7; Friday, Nov. 8; and Saturday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. at Guilderland High School, at 8 School Road in Guilderland Center.
Tickets, sold at the door, cost $5 — with one dollar from each ticket sale going to the high school choir for a trip to New York City.
Maycock said of the $5 ticket price, “That hasn’t changed since I started directing in 1995.”