A mystery wrapped in a riddle inside a hat box

Review

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 “The Hat Box” reminds audiences we need to block out the noise of the world and focus on what really matters: family. 

But wait … how much do we really know about our family members? That question lays the foundation for playwright Eric Coble’s twisty, turny story about two women who, while cleaning out their parents’ home, discover a hat box containing a devastating family secret. The discovery sends Winnie (Sandra Birch) and Claire (Suzi Regan) on a road trip of sorts to try to unravel the mystery of how their father Jerry would come to possess the item in question.  

Their first stop is at the retirement home of their Aunt Esther (Karen Sheridan), who regales them with stories of their grandfather’s inappropriate children’s gifts and his improbable but possible connection to Al Capone. Just as it seems that the visit is for naught, Aunt Esther suggests they visit Jerry’s best childhood friend, Stanley (Rico Bruce Wade).  

As the family tales continue, Winnie and Claire become increasingly confused about who their father really was, and it seems that the still waters of the quiet engineer ran much deeper than expected. They also learn of deeply complex connections between all various friends and family members. No one is who they seem, and that seems to be Coble’s point. No one person can know another person fully, and even trying to assemble multiple perceptions and experiences into a coherent picture is fruitless. 

In a meta moment, Aunt Esther shouts, “We are all damn good actors!” Indeed, the cast is indeed all damn good actors. Coincidentally, the juiciest role is that of Aunt Esther, and Sheridan has set such a high standard in this world premiere that will be hard for any future actress in the role to top. Sheridan’s facial expressions alone are a wonder, as we see Aunt Esther transition from a doddering old lady to a wily manipulator to a brokenhearted lover longing for truth, love and closure.  

As Stanley’s “new” wife Marsha (Brenda Lane), at first it seems that an actor with Lane’s talent is wasted in the role. Meek and mild, she is initially barely more than a set piece, but like everyone else, she has secrets. When given a Columbo moment to spin out her theory about Jerry’s hat box, Lane gets her chance to shine and prove that there’s more to Marsha than meets the eye. Perhaps influenced by a few too many true-crime shows, Marsha has clearly spent significant time thinking up scenarios about what drove Stanley and Jerry apart decades ago.  

Aaron Delnay’s set is a subtle reflection of the play’s themes. The wallpaper of the living room drifts away — reminiscent of a dandelion billowing apart in a breeze. This may reflect any number of themes, such as the dissolution of family, memories and tradition. Or perhaps it reflects the potential of the future — seeds peacefully floating away to an unknown destination, like Winnie and Claire embracing the mysteries of their family and moving on. 

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from “The Hat Box,” ably directed by John Lepard, is this: if you have secrets that you don’t want your loved ones to learn, destroy the evidence now. For you mischievous types who like to leave ’em guessing, feel free to just tuck the evidence away in a box in the back of a closet for your survivors to discover some later day.  

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