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Leave it to In Tandem Theatre to produce an American premiere in Milwaukee by British playwright John Goodrum at Tenth Street Theatre. Goodrum’s chilling The Nightmare Room takes inspiration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story by the same name and arrives with its psychological thrills and pretense of murder this October.

In typical fashion for crime fiction and the Sherlock Holmes’s author Doyle (and one uses 'typical’ in the British context where the term means an expected high standard), two women named Catherine and Helen pledged to be best friends since their childhood. That is, until a handsome movie star named Michael interrupts their long-standing sisterhood and Catherine marries Michael after conniving to win his love.   

In true English form instead of an American version depicted in Sex in the City female friendships, the women’s present relationship has the rich and powerful real estate developer Catherine tying the ordinary office worker Helen in a chair. Blindfolded and bound, Helen has her life threatened by Catherine, who presents Helen with two glasses of water and a vial of poison, potassium chloride, in a final rematch of the emotional games they played on each other since they were girls.  

The scenario begins in a room with distorted perspectives and cold, pristine white walls sparsely filled with streamlined white furniture that accentuates the absurdities to these women’s equally distorted minds. Catherine seeks revenge because Helen’s bedding her husband, Michael, who has already slept with his personal assistant humorously named “Short Skirt.” Helen merely asks Catherine to give Michael up, free him. It’s a beguiling premise. The audience easily engages with the women’s personal dramas through the script’s flashbacks into past years that alternate with the present moments to provide suspense.

Director Chris Flieller allows the two actresses plenty of room for the intense rivalry. Mary C. McLellan power dresses as Catherine in a sculptured white trench coat to contrast Libby Amato’s lighter hearted Helen clothed in blue jeans and ballet flats. The ensuing chess match between Catherine and Helen creates the sublime tension in this surprising production. Each “friend” counter moves on the other to secure the movie star for herself, the famous Michael that the audience only hears and never sees.

One wonders if only a man living at the turne of the 20th century could write a story where two best friends would go to these radical personal extremes over another man who was merely prized for his godlike body and smile only, without any worthwhile character qualities. No money involved, Catherine had all she needed, and Helen desired none. This rivalry revolves around masculine eye candy only and says more about the women’s twisted friendship. Goodrum ups the story's theatrical ante by adding some modern details and revealing their divergent backgrounds. Although their backgrounds disclose these women had serious emotional issues since they were reading fairy tales like Rumpelstilskin to each other, which the competition for Michael only fueled more fully. 

The In Tandem production definitely haunts the audience with the ghoulish energy flowing back and forth between Catherine and Helen all evening, an enthralling performance. While pondering where these disturbing personalities might fit in contemporary culture, sit back and be throughly seduced by the crime scenes in The Nightmare Room.

In Tandem Theatre presents The Nightmare Room at Tenth Street Theatre through October  21. For more information or tickets please call: 414.271.1275 or click the link to the left.    By Peggy Sue Dunigan









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