THEATER REVIEW: Onstage’s spooky murder mystery, “The Sugar Witch”

Flying cats, a witch’s curse, weird sounds, strange lights, murder, gluttony and yes, even love in the Florida swamps are on display in Nathan Sanders’ 2007 Southern gothic tale “The Sugar Witch,” playing through Nov. 3 at OnStage Playhouse. Rob Conway directs.

Everything seems to be decaying around the old Bean homestead: the house itself, the sugar cane fields no longer tended, even the Bean family. This is due in part to the curse, which dates from a flood whose particulars sound suspiciously like Katrina, but in fact are based on a 1928 incident.

The only remaining Beans are Sisser (Holly Stephenson), who sits in a wheelchair eating herself to death, and her younger brother Moses (Ryan Casselman), a car mechanic. Even Sisser’s favorite pet cockroach Lurlene has died, and soon there will be more death in the house.

Sharing the homestead is Annabelle (Yolanda Franklin), the last of the sugar witches and keeper of Bean family secrets, who has taken care of the siblings for years.

Moses is an innocent – but also a handsome devil – and local girl Ruth Ann Meeks (Anya Tuerk) has set her sights on him, hanging around the shop and trying to engage him in conversation. She seems not to have noticed that shop customer Hank Hartley (Tony Bejarano) visits the shop often for the same reason.

This day, she has walked – uninvited – through the swamp to the Bean homestead in hopes of finding Moses, who is not there. After she and Sisser engage in an acrimonious exchange, Ruth Ann barges into the house on the assumption that Sisser is lying. This will be the last time she is seen alive, and the rest of the plot springs from this fact.

Franklin anchors the show and captivates as Annabelle, the last sugar witch, who tries to lift the curse her grandmother put on the family. Her Annabelle exudes less the thrill of the exotic than the calm of world-weariness; she seems more tired of her powers than impressed by them.

Casselman is convincing as Moses, the last of the Bean line, perhaps surprised to find himself in love with Bejarano’s less convincing Hank, but unwilling to pass up the opportunity for love.

Stephenson acquits herself about as well as anyone could, given her character description (“obese and somewhat mad”) and that almost all she does besides sit in that wheelchair and eat is complain. There is one scene, however, which looks like something straight out of a horror movie.

Tuerk is sufficiently annoying as Ruth Ann; in fact, the high, somewhat screechy voice she uses here makes her a bit too annoying to want to listen to.

Nick Young is fine in the small role of Granddaddy Meeks, who comes looking for his granddaughter.

“The Sugar Witch” is all about atmosphere, superstition, magic and murder, so presentation is paramount. Director Rob Conway and set designer Bruce Wilde, with his “Sugar Witch team,” give us a fine and creepy set centered by that disintegrating house and two large trees (made from the pillars used for “The Lion In Winter”), trunks scarred with lumpy protuberances and branches dripping with dead or dying moss-like growths.

Steve Murdock’s eerie sound design and Chad Oakley’s spooky lighting add to the atomosphere.

You probably wouldn’t want to meet the folks in Buster Swamp in real life, but it’s fascinating to observe them from the safety of a theater seat.

The details

“The Sugar Witch” plays through Nov. 3 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave. (near F Street), Chula Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm.

For tickets, call 619-422-7787 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.