This article first appeared in the DelcoNewsNetwork
An autumn thriller has long been a tradition at Hedgerow Theatre, and it’s starting to become one for Jennifer Summerfield, who is performing in it for the third year in a row. The critically acclaimed Philadelphia actress who began her training at Hedgerow as a teen portrays Dr. Van Helsing in “Dracula,” Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, which runs through Nov. 22.
“Dracula” also marks the second time that Summerfield has faced the challenge of being cast as a character usually played by a man, having appeared as Horatio in last year’s “Hamlet.” “It’s really great that Hedgerow is willing to try different ideas,” she commented. “It never even occurred to me that I’d have the chance to play Van Helsing, but it’s a fun opportunity to approach a very familiar character slightly differently and see how that affects the relationships with the other characters.”
Preparing for the role involved a lot of research into involved a lot of research into the horror genre and the vampire legend, including reading Stoker’s original. “Before I read the book, I was thinking of the character Hugh Jackman played in the movie Van Helsing,” Summerfield laughed, “so I was thinking more of an action hero. I started taking kickboxing lessons, thinking I was going to be really tough. Then I read the book and realized Van Helsing is a very cerebral professor who approaches things from an analytical perspective.”
Director Dan Hodge, co-founder of the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, is a huge horror-film buff, so he was a big help in Summerfield’s preparation. “This is right up Dan’s alley and he came with a lot of ideas,” she said. “He brought in a bunch of his favorite movies, including some Hammer Films from the ’50s that he distributed among the cast for inspiration. I started with The Brides of Dracula with Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, who’s so elegant and sophisticated. Dan mentioned that Cushing handles props extremely well, so I’m trying to be as graceful as I can with all my props, like the stakes, garlic and wolfbane.”
Having a female in the role does change the dynamics between some of the characters, Summerfield admitted, “but I think it’s in a good way. I feel it’s a much more natural process for Lucy to confide in Van Helsing woman to woman as I try to figure out the source of her mysterious ailment. There’s also a strong friendship between Lucy’s father, Dr. Seward, so I had to figure out their connection and collaboration. It helps that he’s played by John Lopes, because we’ve worked together before. That was like a shorthand to the Seward-Van Helsing relationship because John and I know each other so well and like each other a lot, and it’s easily translated to the stage.”
There’s also an interesting change in the chemistry between Dracula and the doctor who seeks to destroy him. “When we were rehearsing their big scene, we had to figure how to stage their standoff and whether there would be a sexually charged atmosphere between them,” she recalled, “and even finding out if the Count did bite me how would he do it.”
J Hernandez, who plays Dracula, agreed that he shouldn’t approach Van Helsing as he would a man. “We decided,” she added, “that a vampire would bite either a man or a woman, but it’s definitely a much more sultry approach with a woman.”
Summerfield credits Hodge with helping her find just the right flavor for her character.
“Working with Dan is always fantastic,” she said, “because he doesn’t get locked into ideas. He provides the framework and gives the actors the freedom to explore. He was helpful in guiding us through this very stylized type of theatre, with a lot of saying a line to your partner and then turning out to the audience at the pivotal moment, which I hadn’t done before. He also helped me find my character’s warmth, reminding me that to be successful in helping Lucy, I needed to have a bedside manner with her and be soft sometimes. Dan was able to add moments of real suspense to a well-known story, and it was so well cast. It’s been a blast working with everyone. I hope it’s as much of a fun ride for the audience as it has been for us!”
For reservations or more info, call 610-565-4211 or visit www.HedgerowTheatre.org. Hedgerow Theatre is at 64 Rose Valley Road, Media.