A group of people, a haunted house. A large and ominous mansion that at times seems to have a will of its own, psychologically controlling its hosts and keeping viewers on tenterhooks. This premise is used in many ghost stories, including the classic horror film The Haunting, which was adapted from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. Imagine a story based on psychological torment, spiritual manipulation, and a desperation for safety that contrasts sharply with a desperation for belonging–now imagine a stage production of that story which methodically strips away most of that tension and you’ve basically summed up the Costa Mesa Playhouse show.
The year is 1960. A scientist by the name of Dr. Montague has requested that several people join him in the dreaded Hill House, which has a history of people leaving with recommendations that the house be burned to the ground. These people are: Eleanor–a timid woman, who once had what might be deemed an “otherworldly” encounter as a child. Theodora–a brazen artist who can identify “19 out of 20 cards” when they are held out of her view, and Luke–the young man who will one day inherit Hill House. They are joined at intervals by the hilarious housekeeper Mrs. Dudley, and the doctor’s own wife Mrs. Montague with her assistant Arthur. As the play progresses the group is frightened by various aspects of the house, and Eleanor’s own state of mind deteriorates more severely than anyone could have anticipated.
With limited space the production designer created a lovely and realistic looking living room and bedroom. The bedroom door, which plays a significant part, is well structured in its role. While not overly spacious, the stage is sufficiently spaced and decorated for its purpose. Largely, the issues arrive not because of the space but because of the lack of movement.
The players do not move enough. As previously stated, the audience only has access to the living room and the bedroom. The moments that take place in the hallway or the tower are voiced by the actors offstage and then discussed later in front of the audience. It is entirely possible for this format to work. But that would require the characters to be moving around in the space, and they simply do not. Instead they sit or stand in one place for long periods of time, moving only occasionally, seemingly devoid of purpose except that an invisible director told them that it was time to switch from the chair to the sofa. The lighting is appropriate for setting one mood, but fails to transition into a “storytelling” mode. In a suspenseful story, things like tone are pivotal, but the lighting of this story does not adjust.
Acting wise the Lead actress Stephanie Thomas is appropriately timid and withdrawn from the beginning, but her loss of sanity fails to come across. Her Eleanor doesn’t change enough to make the audience feel genuine concern for her well being. Elle Grant is miscast as Theodora, for although the character is intended to be young and beautiful, it is painful to hear Theodora refer to Eleanor as “kid” and “baby” when Eleanor appears to be in her 40s and Theodora could easily be a high school student. Gabriel Lawrence is inconceivably monotone as Luke. His use of inflection and phrasing is completely devoid of feeling. The best performance of the night is that of Barbara Duncan Brown. Her Mrs. Dudley is cold, purpose driven, and creepy. Honestly, rent the original (1963) movie the Haunting. It’s cheaper & you’ll actually get the scare, you were looking for.
Ticket Info at the website:
Location & Dates :
661 Hamilton St, Costa Mesa, CA 92627
October 24th – November 16th
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