BWW Review: THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE at Oyster Mill Playhouse
For those who have ever wondered why some places just seem to exude a particular feeling or energy-comfort, safety, danger, evil-The Haunting of Hill House explores this theme. Since the book was first published in 1959 by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House has seen several different adaptations, including two movies. While the 1963 movie stayed true to the novel, the 1999 version, The Haunting, starring Catherine Zeta Jones, Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor took a supernatural turn. Our fascination with the idea of Hill House doesn't end there-Netflix is slated to release a TV series based on the book in October. Rather than relying on the threat of physical harm, scary people, or actual monsters like in a slasher story, The Haunting of Hill House focuses on threats to the psyche. Now through October 7, Oyster Mill Playhouse presents F. Andrew Leslie's stage adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House.
The audience is first introduced to Mrs. Dudley, the housekeeper at Hill House, and Eleanor Vance, a young woman who has been invited by Dr. Montague to spend a week in research at the house. While their timing feels a little off for the first few minutes, the actors quickly settle into their roles. Mary Gutierrez, who portrays Mrs. Dudley, is perfectly emotionless as she explains that she does not "wait on people" and that she will not hear them when they scream in the night. Throughout the show she pops up periodically, eliciting chuckles from the audience, as she consistently reiterates her mantra about what she has agreed to do, providing easy material for the other characters in the show to mock. Gutierrez is just spooky enough in this role without being over the top, and she seems to "fit" with the atmosphere of the house.
Megan Thomas's Eleanor Vance is both excited and nervous about her time at Hill House. Her character is the most complex, and Thomas handles the emotional depth well. She swings from intrigued to fearful to strangely excited with great agility. The audience can see and feel the way the house is influencing her through her facial expressions and her reactions to the other characters (including the house). The scene where she finds her way to the house's stone tower and the final scene where she says goodbye are brilliantly executed.
Theodora, Luke Sanderson, and Dr. Montague round out the first group of investigators we meet. Theodora is larger than life, flippant and flirty. While Kirstin Evancho's Theodora is a little too reminiscent of Catherine Zeta Jones's interpretation of the character for my taste, she provides a great contrast to Thomas's Eleanor. Eleanor is susceptible, fearful, and naïve, while Theodora is skeptical, brave, and worldly. Evancho's energy brings the stage to life and challenges her fellow actors to match her, elevating the audience's experience of the emotion in the show. As the house begins to influence Theodora, she becomes obsessed with the scrapbook of Hill House's original owner, which is filled with horrific images and text. Evancho's delivery when she is describing what's in the book is one of my favorite parts-the audience can picture in their minds what's on the page and can almost see the man reading these terrible passages to his two young children.
Luke Sanderson, eventual heir of Hill House, is played by Jacob Tingstrom. A little stilted at first, Tingstrom hits his stride when the first strange occurrence happens at the house. Luke and Dr. Montague talk about chasing after a dog they thought they saw, he begins to relax into the role. He really shines in the scenes where Luke jokes around with Eleanor and Theodora, and the three of them, under the influence of the house, start to act like children.
Michael Hosler is a fantastic Dr. Montague. Some may prefer a "spookier" interpretation of the role, but I appreciate how his Dr. Montague approaches the research and the strange things at the house so enthusiastically. His telling of the story of Hill House in the first act is riveting and well-delivered. In the second act the audience sees the complexity in the character of Dr. Montague when they meet his wife and as he begins to take on a father-like role in relation to his three young researchers. Hosler handles this multi-dimensional character quite well and is a joy to watch on stage.
Arthur Parker and Mrs. Montague are the final characters to make an appearance. While the characters seem unnecessary to the storyline and really only act as a foil to the main characters, Andy Isaacs and Melissa Hurwitz do a nice job in the roles. Isaacs describes his character as "a clueless nonentity", and he is able to play the part with just the right amount of awkwardness and blandness in expression, tone of voice, and posture to bring out that characterization. Hurwitz plays the overbearing, exasperated wife who disagrees with her husband's way of doing research so well that it is easy for the audience to feel sorry for Dr. Montague.
The set, music, and lighting are designed to evoke a sense of eeriness to heighten the audience's feeling that the house is an evil entity. The music is a nice touch during the set and costume changes, a few of which are long enough that they risk losing the audience's attention; indeed in a few of those long pauses, even with the music, the audience started to shift in their seats and some quiet chatter could be heard. The lighting during the scene where Eleanor thinks she hears her mother's voice is wonderful and suits this most-intense scene in the show. The choice to perform the last few lines of the show off-stage is unfortunate-the sound does not come through the speaker with the best quality, so the lines, which bring the story full-circle and should serve to bring the show to a powerful ending really lose most of their power.
Overall, Oyster Mill's production of The Haunting of Hill House is very well done. There are elements that create the perfect sense of spookiness one expects, even evoking occasional gasps and jumps from the audience. If you're looking for a show with a talented cast that is a great lead-in to the Halloween season, get your tickets for The Haunting of Hill House at www.oystermill.com.