‘Cousin Rachel’ plays with our minds at Spoleto

Daphne du Maurier may have fallen out of favor with readers, but nobody equalled her at telling a story that was romantic to the point of melodrama, infused with spookiness – often with hints of the supernatural – and ambiguous to the end. She was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite writers, and he made feature films from “Rebecca,” “Jamaica Inn” and “The Birds.”

He didn’t adapt her 1951 novel “My Cousin Rachel,” though it’s up his alley of ambiguity. Philip Ashley, cousin to wealthy landowner Ambrose Ashley, learns of Ambrose’s death in Venice. Ambrose leaves him two legacies: The extensive Ashley properties, which Philip will control after his imminent 25th birthday, and a series of letters warning Philip to beware of his widow, who has preyed upon Ambrose and all but killed him.

Soon she arrives in England, seemingly innocent of malice. At first, the family solicitor takes her part: Surely Ambrose had fallen victim to the “brain fever” that killed his father and grandfather, and Rachel is the kindly, impoverished widow she seems. But as Philip becomes besotted with her, turning away from the woman he expected to marry, doubts arise.

The Gate Theatre has come to Spoleto Festival USA off and on for 25 years, usually to Dock Street Theatre (where “Rachel” is). The Irish company has brought more substantive work but rarely delivered more pleasure: We wait until literally the final lines to learn the essence of Rachel’s nature, and even those of us who already know it (as I did) may gasp at the last speech.

Joseph O’Connor, who turned the novel into a well-crafted play, stripped it to seven characters and cut Ambrose completely: He’s a portrait on a wall, looking benevolently down on his former drawing room. Director Toby Frow heightens suspense all the way, from the fog drifting past the Ashley windows to a sudden storm.

Hannah Yelland’s Rachel remains delightfully ambiguous: proud, attractive to headstrong young Philip (Fra Fee) yet slightly maternal, too. O’Connor and Frow err in making her attorney, Guido Rainaldi (Bryan Murray), so effete; Philip imagines in the novel that Guido is his rival, but no one could be threatened by this fop.

Other characters, from a wry servant (Bosco Hogan) to the honorable solicitor (Stephen Brennan), are just what they should be. The solicitor’s daughter (Rachel Gleeson), has been reduced to a sketch in this retelling, but we understand why he saw something in her charms before meeting Rachel.

Du Maurier prospered before the “kitchen sink” school of dramatists and novelists changed the flavor of British literature; she always believed that a well-told story with little depth but plenty of excitement had its place on a reader’s table. And 63 years later, Gate Theatre proves her right one more time.