Denny Bess, Jon McCormick, Wrenn Schmidt
Phantom Killer is a decidedly depressing ninety minutes of theatre. It sets a very interesting and Hitchcockian tone early in the show but is not able to follow through on its promise.
Luke and Jessie (played by Jon McCormick and Wrenn Schmidt) are newlyweds in the late 1940s, a time of economic depression, who cannot wait to start their new life away from Jessies mother and away from Texas. The single set is a deserted side of the road, where the newlyweds are having a date away from the uncomfortable bitterness of Jessies mother.
This semi-idyllic evening begins to pull apart when Luke admits he cant take Jessie away from Texas quite yet; he needs another few days to get some money together. Tensions are doubled by the discussion of a recent series of murders attributed to the Phantom Killer. Luke doesnt take the threat seriously, but it is obvious that Jessie does. Finally the evening implodes as a Texas Ranger (played by Denny Bess) interrupts the love birds.
Played with an excessive, over-the-top quality, the character of the Ranger toys with the newlyweds, dragging out his investigation as he decides how to manipulate them. After the Ranger leaves, the scenes turn dark and bleak. There are a rape, murders, threats, extortion and, layers of truth are revealed about the newlyweds. It is all too much. The characters act so blandly evil that there is no one to root for. They dont even maintain the semblance of attraction for each other, which might have provided a Bonnie and Clyde type dynamic.
David B. Ogle did an outstanding job designing sets, helped immensely by a 1940 Dodge Coupe (which gets its own credit). Likewise the sound of the Texan night helped bring the story to life, thanks to David Lawson. But ultimately the writing by Jan Buttram left the characters completely unlikeable. They all had valid motivations for their actions, but that isnt enough.
The Director, Jules Ochoa, has chosen a rather lackadaisical pace for the show. The pace mirrors the pace of rural east Texas but doesnt raise the emotions which show needs to bring to life.
Plays and movies like The Bad Seed or Rope turn on the arrival of a singular and often surprising evil character. The tension mounts as others have to react to this unexpected situation. If everyone has immoral motivations, there is no surprise in their responses. As for the central mystery of who the Phantom Killer is, we ultimately dont care. He or she could cause the disappearances of each of the characters and none of these people would be missed.