July 28 2010 12:00 AM

A boogieman haunts the bayou backwaters in fun frightfest ’Wiley’



Where do you find a good old-fashioned, kid-friendly scare these days? Aside from the plethora of horror houses around Halloween and B-movies from the ’50s littering the video rental shelves, the options are slim.

But for one more weekend, Riverwalk Theatre is presenting Susan Zeder’s "Wiley and the Hairy Man," a tasty cauldron of creeps, served Cajun-style.

What "Wiley" lacks in special effects, it more than makes up for in wit and ingenuity, two features that are sadly lacking in much of today’s kid-friendly entertainment.

Set in a spooky swamp somewhere in the South, "Wiley" stars Jonathan Turkus as the arrogant yet insecure Wiley, a young boy plagued with a nightmare of the infamous Hairy Man, played with slimy malevolence by Edric Haleen.

Although his Mammy (the always reliable Kerry Waters) is the "best conjurer in the whole Southwest County," Wiley must eventually learn to confront and defeat the Hairy Man by himself, or potentially face being eaten.

While the stakes are certainly higher than in some children’s theater, "Wiley" succeeds by providing a number of useful concepts — including facing your fears, utilizing your talents, and being self reliant — without blatantly moralizing.

Turkus gives an impressively natural performance as Wiley, from his cocky posturing to his genuinely expressed terror, all with an authentic-sounding Southern accent.

Most important, Turkus makes Wiley a character that you root for when the chips are down.

Waters plays his moral and emotional anchor with all of her homespun sassiness. Dryly dealing with Wiley’s smartaleck attitude, Waters makes the most of her momma-isms without ever upstaging Wiley.

But a good scary story is only as good as its villain, and actor Haleen plays a truly formidable foe. Haleen growls every line, including Wiley’s name, with a sinister smirk akin to Freddy Krueger.

He may be dressed as a hillbilly in overalls with a woman’s red wig, but his hunched back and hands shaped like claws easily foreshadow his nightmarish potential. He even has his own "Jaws"like theme music to warn of his arrival.

Ultimately it is the character’s pride and fear of dogs that prove to be his undoing, and his eventual demise is nothing short of exhilarating.

Rounding out the cast is Garrett Clinard as Wiley’s trusty hound Dog, as well as a chorus of trees, vines, prickly bushes and many other malleable conjurations made of Jan Anderson, Carol Ferris, Jennifer Dachtler, Jayke Pell and Bob Murrell.

Under the focused yet fun direction of Susan Chmurynsky, the need for expensive set pieces beyond designer Mark Mandenberg’s scaled-down impressions quickly seems frivolous.

Sadly, no credit is given for the makeup or costume design that complete the illusion of the chorus members as spirits of the swamp.

Spooky swamp sounds are provided by Dani Fawaz, with lighting by Amanda Ainslie, both of which heighten the suspense appropriately, not to mention the clever props designed by Celia Ainslie.

As Wiley eventually discovers, sometimes you just have to face your fears lest they continue to haunt you. And what’s more fun than a good scare for the whole family to thoroughly enjoy together?

’Wiley and the Hairy Man’

Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive 7 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m.

Sundays, through Aug. 1 $7 adults, $5 children (517) 482-5700 www.riverwalktheatre.com (517) 482-5700