“Wilderness of Mirrors” is a riveting production

Aaron Lai/ Highlander
Aaron Lai/ Highlander

The UCR Department of Theater, Film and Digital Production continued their season this past weekend with the cloak-and-dagger thriller “Wilderness of Mirrors.” The play was a two-hour event in which a young journalist named Erin (played by Gloria Olivas) goes looking for answers about a spy who was recruited out of Yale for the CIA during World War II. From there, the plot leaps between different periods of time and weaves in and out of memory and the physical world.

The script was written in collaboration by Charles Evered, Stuart Krieger and Robin Russin. In the director’s note by Root Park, it is stated that, “(the play) is about the fragmented memories of the characters,” and the drama definitely feels like an exploration of memory and how there are times when memory fails us.

The small stage of the Arts Building was reimagined into several different places: New York City, Connecticut, Berlin, Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia over the duration of the play; largely in thanks to the impeccable acting and timing of the cast, all of these changes and moves felt fluid and cohesive. The lead roles were played by Miles Anderson, a CIA recruiter named Robert Conlan disguised as an Ivy League professor, and Ephraim Eshete, a young James Singleton fresh out of Yale when he is recruited and sent to Berlin.

The set and lighting were minimalistic: A wooden dining room table framed by two doors and two bookshelves filled with volumes from our own Rivera Library, a bottle of whiskey, a standing lamp and five chairs, all of which blended smoothly together with complementary shades of brown. Despite the sparse decor, it was not difficult to visualize the room changing from a Yale library to a safehouse under fire in Berlin.

Aaron Lai/ Highlander
Aaron Lai/ Highlanderpla

Grace McLaughlin played the professor’s wife, who develops an alcohol addiction as the tension in their relationship rises, and their niece Christina was rendered by Samantha Abdala, who falls in love with Singleton. It was revealed nearly halfway into the play that in the present day the young journalist Erin is curious for more than just the sake of good reporting — the CIA recruit was actually her father whom she never met, which raised the stakes and tension of the piece considerably.

During nighttime scenes, the stage lights would dim and the back would illuminate with faint white lights to mimic stars, which worked well. The scenes with Singleton and Christina alone outside with one another while looking at the stars felt genuinely acted and touching. The relationship with the professor and his wife also felt authentic, albeit far less touching.

Throughout the performance, cast members exited and entered the stage from all four corners of the room and walked between the stands to get there, which gave the feeling that the audience was totally immersed in the story. All of the characters felt connected by something deeper than mere plot; their relationships and struggles were easy to invest in.

During the intermission, audience members expressed their surprise at how much they were enjoying the play. A group of students behind me mentioned they had only attended to receive extra credit, but that they were starting to really get into it.

The second half of the play got considerably darker than the first, which was mainly time to develop character and set the conflict up. In this half of the play, Singleton had already been to Berlin and back, was separated from Christina by the professor and had written a book of poetry. All of his relationships suffer, and he isn’t close with anyone. The professor and his wife are no longer together either.

Although rather grim, the hour went by quickly due to the action scenes and suspense. One scene had Singleton putting the professor into a headlock. Another transitioned from light Bach playing in the background to Singleton being tortured with various metal instruments while tied to a chair. In these moments, Eshete’s commitment to the role was tested, and he managed to convey the physical pain and emotional suffering of the character convincingly.

The passing of time really showed how well the costumes had been chosen, even from little details like Singleton’s hair graying slightly as the play went on. The outfits were suited to whichever time period was being represented, and the language felt true to the time as well. The actors also excelled over the large span of time; the change in their characters was evident as more drama unfolded. It was truly a professional and mature performance on all fronts.

In the end, I didn’t get the ending I wanted — I got the ending that made sense for the play, which is how I know it was any good. Other audience members shared this sentiment, and when the cast made their way out for one last round of applause, everyone in the audience clapped and cheered. The production turned out to be a success that I certainly didn’t expect. Not that I thought it would be horrible, but the level of acting was so polished I felt lucky that I got to see it for free. There will be performances this coming weekend from May 12 to May 14 at  8 p.m., and is free to UCR students. After seeing “Wilderness of Mirrors,” I’m looking forward to the rest of the department’s upcoming performances.

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