BWW Review: Spooky SUMMERLAND at Washington Stage Guild

BWW Review: Spooky SUMMERLAND at Washington Stage Guild

October is the ideal time to delve into the afterlife and commune with disquieted spirits. Washington Stage Guild presents the DC-area premiere of Summerland, the story of a post-Civil War "spirit photographer" to whom distraught mourners turn for images of their dead loved ones, and of the New York City police officer who is committed to prove he's a fraud.

Summerland by Arlitia Jones is based on the true story of William H. Mumler who captured images of the dearly departed in photographs taken for grieving loved ones. In the days following the Civil War, when so many were devastated by loss, spiritualism was on the rise and Mumler's craft became a profitable business.

In Summerland, Chief Marshal Joseph Tooker, an ambitious police investigator with political ambitions, sets out to prove Mumler's photographs are a sham. Yet even Mary Todd Lincoln came in disguise to see the talented Mumler, who captured the image of the dead president placing a comforting hand on his widow's shoulder. But, in a court of law, despite photographs, observation, and physical evidence there is no clarity. Tooker himself is puzzled by what has been uncovered in his own life, although he is determined to prove Mumler is a swindler. The play and its characters vacillate between believers and skeptics. Is Mumler exploiting the grief of his clients or is he a true pathway to the Summerland of the title - an afterlife or spirit realm, a lovely world free of cares where souls can meet beside a stream to settle down and catch fish without a care?

Helen Hayes nominee Steven Carpenter is a steady and amiable chief marshal Joseph Tooker. Yury Lomakin is a brooding, earnest photographer deeply missing his own loved ones. Rachel Felstein portrays the dutiful Mrs. Mumler, who is rumored to have a questionable past, and could possibly be a "healing medium," an expert researcher or both. Helen Hayes Award-winner Kasi Campbell directs the work. There are powerful moments like Felstein's silent strength at the close of Act One, Carpenter's reflections on Gettysburg, or Lomakin's deep longing for the young son who died of influenza. But, while the playwright gives us some moments of humor and light, too many scenes in this production are either overly mannered or melodramatic. Given the ambiguous nature of the script, it is frustrating, and the audience is left with few moments of truthful connection with the characters.BWW Review: Spooky SUMMERLAND at Washington Stage Guild

Scenic Designer Pancharee Sangkaeo delivers a unit set of dark woods, doilies, and gas lamps appropriate to the post-Civil War photographer's studio. Costume Designer Sigrid Johannesdottir's 1860s costumes - particularly in outfitting Mrs. Mumler - draw on interesting period specifics. Mrs. Mumler's mourning dress with jet details and linen chemise and wrap is particularly striking. Sound Designer/Composer Matthew M. Nielson creates suitably spooky ambient sound. Resident Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows washes the stage with both gas lit golden tones and the sunlit studio space needed for early photographic images.

Although the play's premise is intriguing and there are interesting moments, the script doesn't artfully move the story leaving the production unsatisfying and uneven despite an earnest attempt.

Runtime: 1:55 including one 15-minute intermission

BWW Review: Spooky SUMMERLAND at Washington Stage Guild

SUMMERLAND by Arlitia Jones is produced by the Washington Stage Guild at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. The production runs through October 21 with performances on Thursday evenings at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. For tickets, call the Washington Stage Guild box office at. 240-582-0050 visit the theater's website here.

Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography

Top: Steven Carpenter (L) and Yury Lomakin (R). Center: Steven Carpenter (L) and Rachel Felstein (R). Bottom: Yury Lomakin (L) and Steven Carpenter (R).

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From This Author Pamela Roberts

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