East Cleveland Theater opens season No. 50 with dramatic Jekyll and Hyde


Kyle Smith, Staff Reporter

Fog poured through the darkly lit hall of a 100-year-old church Saturday night, as dark figures stalked through the gloom pursuing evil intentions. Where pews should have stood, rows of theater seating held a sparse audience, enthralled by the tale unfolding before them.

It was the second night of the East Cleveland Theater’s (ECT’s) production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a play by Richard Abbott adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s book “The Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and directed by ECT’s own Michael Lenzo.

The performance, which opened Friday, Oct. 5, marks the beginning of East Cleveland Theater’s 50th season. The show will run through Oct. 28 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. in the ECT’s permanent home: the Windermere Presbyterian Church on Euclid Avenue.

The Gothic, turn-of-the-century architecture of the church is the perfect setting for Stevenson’s classic Victorian story. Moonlight filtered in through the high windows, illuminating the artificial fog that swirled around the play’s single backdrop, an amazingly period-accurate sitting room. Alongside donated furniture and handmade props, a computer screen playing pre-recorded footage showed the audience a sneeringly evil Edward Hyde whenever a forlorn Henry Jekyll stood in front of it.

The level of dedication, care and ingenuity put into the scenery was matched by that of the actors, who displayed incredible on-stage chemistry as the tale of Jekyll’s experiment-gone-wrong unwound.

Many actors explained that the ECT displays a level of expertise that sets it far above its peers. The ECT is run almost entirely on volunteer labor, with only four professional positions. For some, that professionalism is what drew them to the theater in the first place.

“I actually saw a show here a long time ago. I was so impressed that I came back to participate,” said Paula Santa, a graduate of Case Western Reserve University’s theater program who starred as Diana Carter in her ECT debut.

“[ECT] is definitely one of the more professional community theaters you’ll ever find. They’re just so professional in the way that they handle the performance and care for you,” said Caralyn Doerge, who played the role of Diana Carew, Dr. Jekyll’s fiance. “The people here are just so warm and inviting.”

The audience can feel the warmth and care that goes into each performance, and it is vital to the role of theater in a community.

“As an actor, the most important part of theater is to tell a story, to communicate something to the audience. For them, it’s a form of escapism, a way to get away from the humdrum of everyday life,” said Justin Steck, who stars in the titular role of Dr. Jekyll and his evil alter-ego Mr. Hyde.

“There’s still a wall at the movies. Here you can tell there are no gimmicks. It’s more participatory. You feel like a part of [the performance] as well,” said Doerge.

In addition to its commitment to excellent dramatics, the ECT has a moral tradition that dates back to its inception. Founded in 1968, the ECT, then the East Cleveland Community Theater, was created on the principle of interracial cooperation and understanding. The cornerstone of this principle was colorblind casting, unless “the integrity of the play requires casting along racial lines,” casting decisions are made completely independent of race or creed, regardless of the piece’s period or original casting.

Stage manager, sound engineer, photographer and general handyman James Charpie is proud to say that this is a principle that the theater continues to uphold to this day.

“[The principle of colorblind casting] is something we cherish very highly here,” said Charpie, a resident of Little Italy.

In recent years, the nature of such a commitment has changed with the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods, but it is no less important.

“The biggest change we’re experiencing now is that for a period, East Cleveland was a primarily black neighborhood. Now, there’s an influx of people of other nationalities, and that makes our mission that much more important, we think,” said Charpie.

In the 50 years since its founding, many things have changed around the ECT. One thing that has remained constant is the ECT’s dedication to upholding its principles and putting on an incredible show. A ticket to an ECT show guarantees not only a warm welcome but an unforgettable show.

The ECT is presenting performances of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until Oct. 28. Tickets cost $12 for students and $15 for adults.