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Movie Reviews : 'Shadow Play' In Wake Of A Suicide

September 26, 1986|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Writer's block. It's a terrible disease--and Morgan Hanna (Dee Wallace-Stone) has it. A promising New York playwright, she smokes cartons of cigarettes and washes down sleeping pills with booze. But nothing can squelch her nightmares, which find her reliving the events surrounding the bizarre suicide of her fiance, Jeremy (Barry Laws), who plunged to his death from a lighthouse near his island home on Washington's Puget Sound..

Unnerved by her vivid dreams, Morgan returns to the scene of the tragedy, hoping to solve the mystery behind his death. This perilous quest forms the heart of "Shadow Play" (selected theaters), an intriguing, if uneven, psychological thriller by first-time feature writer-director Susan Shadburne.

After her arrival at windswept Orcas Island, Morgan settles in with her late fiance's family, a close-knit clan equally unhinged by the past. They include Jeremy's mom, Millie (Cloris Leachman), still haunted by the death of her husband, and John (Ron Kuhlman), Jeremy's troubled brother, who can't escape his dead sibling's shadow. The story wanders along the way--introducing us to a one-armed psychic as well as a local theater group, which performs a work-in-progress based on Morgan's psychic turmoil. But her dark, brooding reveries, which find her wracked with guilt and sadness, form the heart of this disturbing search for a lost love.

It's always difficult to dramatize this kind of Sturm und Drang, especially since we only get to know Jeremy--the key to Morgan's emotional strife--through a series of clunky flashbacks. And while Shadburne has a wonderful sense of composition (we're always seeing characters reflected in mirrors, as if to emphasize their sense of dislocation), she gives her actors such free rein that the story begins to overdose on its own emotional hysteria. Leachman in particular is in such a perpetual dither--she clasps her hands to her bosom even after a visit to the local thrift store--that you'd think she was auditioning for an Edgar Allen Poe gothic chiller.

Fortunately the camera stays close to Wallace-Stone, who puts on quite a show even though frequently onscreen alone, without another character to respond to her performance. With an erotic tingle in her soft, furry voice, she makes an enchanting basket case, as adept at unleashing torment as conveying sorrow. If the rest of "Shadow Play" (rated-R for its graphic emotional turmoil) never quite matches this gritty portrayal, it still quickens our pulse.

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