Fabienne Wolf has ”un petit problemme,” and she has come to her father Dr. Pierre Le Bigan for help. The beautiful young Frenchwoman believes the time has come for her missing-person mother Elizabeth Wolf Pilgrin, once Pierre’s lover, to be declared dead, and the only one with the legal authority to do so is Pierre. Naturally, the physician’s refusal to accede to his daughter’s request does not sit well with Fabienne, set to inherit a vast fortune upon her mother’s death, money she plans to share with her stepfather Stanislaus Pilgrin, her mother’s much younger husband and Fabienne’s current lover.

Unbeknownst to Fabienne and Stanislaus, Elizabeth is not only alive but back in Paris, though not yet ready to reveal her “return from the ashes” to Fabienne. Before she can do this, Elizabeth tells Pierre, she wishes to restore her youthful beauty and get a new nose, something a visit to the plastic surgeon can take care of in short order.

Elizabeth is looking better than ever a month or so later when who should she run across but “Stan,” who, taking her as someone who looks remarkably like his wife, instantly hatches a plan. He asks “Julia” (the assumed name Elizabeth is living under) to pose as Elizabeth so that Gabrielle and he can enjoy the fortune they feel is their due. For her help, the lovers will give “Julia” ten percent of Elizabeth’s considerable wealth. Curious to find out how Stan really felt about her, and determined to make him fall in love with her again (as Julia), Elizabeth agrees to the scam.

If this all comes across as rather preposterous, welcome to the world of “noir,” as in film noir, though in this case it should rightly be called theater noir, since Brad Geagley’s Return From The Ashes is a stage adaptation of Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 French thriller Le Retour Des Cendres. In the world of noir, coincidences are as common as dark shadows in the night, emotions are never anything but operatic, and no one, absolutely no one is to be trusted.

Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40 scored a bulls-eye a few years ago with their pitch-perfect stage adaptation of the classic film noir Double Indemnity, and though the World Premiere of Return From The Ashes does not replicate that success, it nonetheless makes for an entertaining if overlong suspense thriller with a number of unexpected twists and turns.

Did I mention that the year is 1945 and Elizabeth is a Holocaust survivor?

I’m not sure how novelist Monteilhet and his French readers felt about this in 1961, but fifty years later, it seems questionable judgment for the annihilation of 90,000 French Jews to be turned into food for a thriller noir, with an “Isn’t that ironic?” denouement that crosses the line of good taste.

Still, there is much to recommend in Theatre 40’s latest, which Stewart W. Howard’s directs with a clear understanding of noir. In particular, Geagley’s script provides meaty roles for its three stars, Gillian Doyle as Elizabeth, Jon Woodward-Kirby as Stanislaus, and Kellie Matteson as Fabienne.

Though Geagley’s English language adaptation has the vaguely stilted syntax of French translated into English, the three leading players do much to make it sound colloquial, all the while maintaining the slightly heightened style of acting the genre requires. (Think 1940s Warner Brothers with Bette Davis fighting for the love of George Brent.)

Speaking of Miss Davis, the role of Elizabeth offers the always fabulous Doyle a great role to sink her teeth into. Make that a great pair of roles, for as “Julia” she adopts a softer-voiced British accent to match the character’s supposed nationality and gentler manner. Doyle is, as always, a commanding, charismatic presence on stage, even when saddled with the clunky monologs Geagley has assigned Elizabeth. (More on that later.)

As Stanislaus, Woodward-Kirby has precisely the movie star looks that Jack Warner would have required from his leading man back in ‘45, with acting chops to match, making the caddish Stan hard to resist. Matteson too is perfectly cast as Fabienne, and she pulls the part off the conniving vixen with a mix of sensuality and spice.

The cast is completed by a trio of able stage veterans, David Hunt Stafford as Pierre, Don Moss as Investigating Magistrate Benjamin Delsace and Police Captain Guillaume Siminae, and Perry Hart as the Inspector of the Nazi High Commission On Jewish Affairs.

One aspect in which Geagley’s adaptation could stand some tweaking is in its over-reliance on narration and its frequent breaking of the fourth wall. Though film noir does indeed often depend on voice over (in this case, from Elizabeth’s diary), having Doyle/Elizabeth repeatedly address the audience as if seeing us across the decades proves awkward at best. At worst, we have “Elizabeth” removing a wig we are supposed to believe is real hair (thereby revealing Doyle’s hair underneath) before donning a scalp-covering knit cap for the next scene. Perhaps Howard could rethink the staging of this one.

Nothing can be faulted in the production’s all-around terrific design elements. Jeff G. Rack’s set is finely detailed and (except for a few props) period appropriate, and allows for rapid scene changes. Dan Reed lights it beautifully, with Bill Froggatt’s sound design and background music setting just the right noirish mood. Todd Silver’s costumes look like they could have been worn by Davis and Brent back in the 1040s.

Return From The Ashes is produced by Stafford. Rachel Manheimer is assistant director and production stage manager.

As a fan of film noir, I enjoyed Return From The Ashes, even as its “Hey, I’m back from the death camps” back story had me more than a bit uncomfortable at times. It makes for some rather suspenseful fun to go back in time to an era when men were bad and women were badder, or vice versa, especially when it’s Doyle, Woodward-Kirby, and Matteson center stage.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.
–Steven Stanley
April 13, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

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