BWW Review: WHISPER HOUSE Opens Season 21 'FEAR ITSELF' at Know Theatre
Whisper House, directed by Dan R. Winters, was written in 2010 by Kyle Jarrow with music by Duncan Sheik. It's 1942, and a young boy named Christopher (Andrew Ramos) is sent to live with his reclusive aunt Lilly (Kelly Mengelkoch), who runs a lighthouse in Maine, after his father dies and his mother is committed to an asylum. Christopher wants to prove that he can take care of his mother by committing heroic acts. He's never met Lilly, and their relationship is immediately strained.
With Lilly lives a Japanese helpmeet, Yasuhiro (Adam Tran), and two ghosts (Cary Davenport and Erin Ward). Because German U-boats have been spotted near the coast, the sheriff (Brant Russell) insists that Lilly comply with the executive order that removed all people of Japanese ancestry from their homes and sent them to internment camps. Christopher, seeing an opportunity to be a hero, tells the sheriff that Lilly is harboring Yasuhiro, and everything breaks loose.
Throughout this action, the ghosts are constantly present, often singing and playing guitar, but sometimes just undulating, vamping, and acting ghostly.
There are some problems with the script and/or the direction. For example, the ghosts' story is the B story, but they are forever on stage pulling focus. Yes, they sing most of the songs, so they also act as narrators, and they're a bit murderous, trying to lure Christopher to death by drowning, but because they're on stage the entire time, I found myself tuning them out, so I could concentrate on the other action. Not that they made that easy to do because they were making faces and moving continuously. As a result, the relationships of the characters we were supposed to see unfold were smothered or just ignored.
There were also some prop/tech anachronisms that seemed strange: At one point, Lilly sings into a cordless modern microphone and the ghosts played modern acoustic six-string guitars throughout. The ghosts were constantly fiddling with objects-setting the table, cleaning up, making tea, moving furniture-while the living characters seemed to accept this as nothing out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, as the ghosts bust their butts on the housework, the supposedly hardworking and indispensable Yasuhiro sits alone in his room writing and carving.
But, the largest leap Jarrow's script asks us to take is (SPOILER ALERT) when the sheriff and Christopher find out that Yasuhiro loves Lilly, their feelings of disgust for and fear of him disappear. That seems like a far-fetched and abrupt about-face for people in the midst of World War II and at a time when interracial marriage was illegal.
One bright spot in this production was Kelly Mengelkoch, who played her role with dignity and honesty. The band was spot-on (music director Erin McCamley always does terrific work), and everyone, particularly Davenport and Ward, sang well. Ramos, Tran, and Russell also did what they could with what were essentially two-dimensional roles.
I believe that it's important to have a place in Cincinnati like the Know Theater that showcases new works and takes big chances. Sometimes those big chances pay off, and everyone has an amazing experience. But sometimes, it doesn't quite work out.
Whisper House is playing through Sunday, August 19. You can purchase tickets here [https://knowtheatre.com/season-21/whisperhouse/].