REVIEW: Buffalo Theatre Ensemble surprises and delights with Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’


Of Notoriety

Directing a cast of four, tasked with slipping in and out of the identities of more than 150 characters, isn’t an easy feat.

Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, the professional Equity company in residence at the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, teamed with ensemble member Kurt Naebig as director, have launched the 2017-2018 season with a four-of-a-kind stage success.

“The 39 Steps,” adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan, is a madcap Hitchcock-inspired whodunit all framed and accomplished by just a cast of four, comprised of one actress and three actors, two of the latter who are masters of quick-change art.

Running now until Oct. 8, the Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning two-hour, one-intermission, play moves briskly, offering audiences comedy, romance and mystery, all served to audiences as an entertaining yarn of twists and turns. Quick changes, a creative cast and long laughs all pair with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic suspense yarn to make “The 39 Steps” a runaway hit with audiences.

Author Buchan wrote the novel in 1915 and it was given film treatment by master of suspense Hitchcock in 1935.

The cast for BTE’s production of “The 39 Steps” stars ensemble member and Glen Ellyn resident Bryan Burke as Richard Hannay and Chicago’s Becca Cox playing Annabela and the primary featured female lead roles, with the duo joined by Daniel Millhouse and Matthew Singleton responsible for all of the other supporting roles throughout the stage story.

Burke is the only cast member who doesn’t assume multiple roles, which is understandable, since his central character is included in every scene. Cold, calm and collected at all times (even when shot in one scene), Burke makes an ideal straight man, masterfully playing every scene with assurance and authority, no matter what zany antics surround him. Willowy Cox, as his love interest and every bit the femme fatale, seizes every opportunity to counter Burke’s character’s reactions to the range of strange situations that face together.

The play also includes sly references to Hitchcock’s most famed films, including “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.”

The play’s plot centers around spies and international intrigue transporting the audience from the moors of Scotland to the London Palladium. The lead character Richard Hannay finds himself tangled in a murder he did not commit and must escape to track down the fiendish masterminds responsible.

The first play version of “The 39 Steps” was written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and premiered in the U.K. 1995. A decade later, Barlow reworked the script to create an intimate production which premiered in June 2005, before a London run a year later. The play debuted on Broadway in January 2008 and won two Tony Awards and to date, “The 39 Steps” has played in more than 40 countries world-wide.

The design team includes a versatile and clever set from Chicago’s Sarah Lewis as Scenic Designer and mountains of clever clothing creations from Mieka van der Ploeg as Costume Designer. Glen Elyn’s Jon Gantt sets the mood as Lighting Designer and Chicago’s Christopher Kriz captures the tone as Sound Designer. Neil Massey serves as Fight Choreographer and Jillian Luce has plenty of fun as Properties Designer. Stage manager is Chicago’s David A Loranca.

Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $37. FYI: or (630) 942-4000.  The McAninch Arts Center (MAC) at College of DuPage is located 25 miles west of Chicago near I-88 and I-355 and has presented theater, music, dance and visual art to more than 1.5 million people since its opening in 1986.

In addition to “The 39 Steps,” Buffalo Theatre Ensemble’s 2017-2018  three-play 2017-2018 season includes “Time Stands Still” by Donald Margulies directed by BTE Artistic Director Connie Canaday Howard  (Feb. 1-March) and “Outside Mullingar” by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Steve Scott (May 3-June 3). Three-play subscriptions are still available. Please note: All BTE 2017-2018 Season performances contain adult themes and language.

Philip Potempa is a veteran journalist and published author. He can be reached