Chicago Theatre Review
Haunted House Hoodoo
The Veil – Idle Muse Theatre Company
A well-written, goose bump-inducing ghost story is a revered art form that promises audiences a thoroughly enjoyable evening of chilling entertainment. Multi-nominated and award-winning, Dublin playwright Conor McPherson’s 2011 haunted house drama, set inside a decaying Irish manor house in 1822, is not that play. Known for penning such wonderful pulse-quickening scripts as “The Weir,” “The Seafarer,” “Shining City” and “The Night Alive,” all set in the contemporary world, and laced with ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, this play sadly misses the mark. It’s overstuffed with far too many ideas, plot lines and characters. As presented here in this modest, but ambitious production, it’s simply three long hours of disappointing, boring blather.
The play opens promisingly enough, with a crash of thunder, a clock ticking somewhere in the high-ceilinged drawing room and the rain steadily falling outside the massive, heavily draped window. Hidden among the shadows at the top of the stairs, barely visible to the theatergoer, stands the ghostly figure of a woman who suddenly vanishes. The stage then comes alive with a bevy of assorted characters, mostly female, all jabbering in thick Irish accents that are sometimes difficult to understand. There’s talk about a suicide, hearing disembodied voices and the power of seances—all promising subjects for a tale of the supernatural. But, as it turns out, it’s just a lot of haunted house hoodoo.
Not among McPherson’s finest scripts, the current Chicago production is a disappointment. Director Ann Kreitman has done her best to bring some kind of order and understanding to the myriad of ingredients mixed in this Irish stew of a story. She’s skillfully guided her cast of eight actors, all of whom work hard to create sound characters that are somewhat real and comprehensible. But, as Hamlet said, “The play’s the thing,” and this one simply disappoints.
Alison Dornheggen, a talented, experienced Chicago actress is very good, as the no-nonsense widowed matriarch of the house, Lady Madeleine Lambroke. She’s decided, come hell or high water, to marry off Hannah, her daughter, to a rich English nobleman in order to pay the bills and escape her ghost-infested home. Hannah (nicely played by Ashley Crowe) isn’t confident that this is the best move, but she’s tired of listening to the mysterious voices that haunt her. Arriving at their home for a brief visit and to accompany the ladies to England are two old friends: Reverend Berkeley (Scott Olson), a defrocked minister, and Charles Audelle (Nathan Pease), his philosophy obsessed friend. Before they leave Ireland, however, the two men try to tap into Hannah’s psychic powers and conduct a seance. In addition to this, there’s a lot of talk about depression, suicidal impulses, opium and alchohol addiction and the inclusion of that dramatic principle known as Chekhov’s gun, which states that if a gun appears in a play it must be fired by the end. It does and it is.
There are a few other characters who lurk about the mansion. Maria Lambroke (Jean Marie Koon), Hannah’s senile, elderly grandmother, is a strangely reticent observer for most of the play, content to silently hover behind the other characters. On the other hand Mrs. Goulding (Leslie Hull), the head housekeeper, has a whole lot to say about everything. She runs a very tight ship, delegating duties to Clare (Catherine Dvorak), the sweetly subservient maid, and to Mr. Fingal (Ross Frawley), the brooding groundskeeper and overseer of the estate. The only real mystery is McPherson’s motive for writing such a confusing play with so many plot points and characters. It’s just a story comprised entirely of confusing and diverting red herrings. The only spirit that truly haunts these folks is their past mistakes.
While not lavish in detail, Tristan Brandon’s scenic and prop design is artistic and serviceable. He provides a manor house setting with a few hidden passageways and a steep staircase leading up to a second floor. Laura J. Wiley has designed a requisite spooky lighting plot for this play, as well as some interesting projections; Erin Gallagher’s costumes aren’t especially elaborate but manage to convey the feel of a bygone era.
Audiences expecting to enjoy one of Conor McPherson’s well-known tantalizing ghost stories, in the style of “The Weir,” will be sadly disappointed with this play. This playwright is known for his wordy plays, but there’s always a well-earned payoff by the final scene. There’s no mounting horror except the time audiences will spend wading through three hours of philosophical banter. While this play, set in a haunted house in early 19th century Ireland, offers glimmers of ghostly visions and a faint promise of spectral interference, in the end it’s all just a lot of talk.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 17-September 17 by the Idle Muse Theatre Company at the Edge Theatre, 5451 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-340-9438 or by going to www.idlemuse.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.