By Tom Titus
7:55 AM PDT, November 7, 2013
Plays based on novels often encounter the age-old paradox — what may captivate a reader may merely induce ennui in a theatergoer. This often is the case in the production of "The Haunting of Hill House" at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
There is, to be sure, a counteractive (yet unseen) force at work vying for the audience's attention, which makes director Michael Dale Brown's production a frighteningly unsettling experience. However, some of the more chatty passages in the script tend to neutralize the horrific effect of an otherwise admirable effort.
Shirley Jackson's celebrated 1959 novel, adapted for the stage by F. Andrew Leslie, is quite detailed in its account of several visitors to an infamous mansion branded as "haunted" because of past incidents on the property. Leading the tour of potential ghostbusters is Dr. John Montague, an investigator of the supernatural, whose wife (who arrives later) also professes (often at the top of her voice) an ability to contact the nether world.
Montague invites three other visitors: Eleanor Vance, a troubled and painfully shy woman; the single-named Theodora, a slinky bohemian who could have been created by Charles Addams; and Luke, a young man who stands to eventually inherit the spooky abode.
The show's standout is Stephanie Thomas as Eleanor, exhibiting quirks of character that suggest she's actually being possessed by the house. Thomas skillfully presents a guarded and repressed character searching desperately for a place to belong and friends to comfort her.
Elle Grant nicely enacts the slim Theodora as a wisecracking skeptic who is included in the foursome because of her seemingly kinetic prowess. Gabriel Lawrence's Luke is less effective, offering an often tentative approach to his unexamined character.
As Montague, the self-appointed leader of the expedition, Robin L. Watkins chews up a large chunk of the play's meandering exposition and reveals a hidden mortality only when being bested by Luke at chess. He finally asserts himself when attempting to expel Eleanor for being too vulnerable to the mansion's evil attraction.
Kay Richey, as his wife, takes the opposite approach, bursting on the scene like a conquering Hun to pursue her own agenda by contacting an ambiguous spirit called "Planchet." An uneven performance, however, tends to neutralize her overall effect.
Joining her, and arriving inexplicably in a kilt, is John Sturgeon as her compatriot, the strict headmaster of a boys school, who makes an instant impression. Sturgeon delivers a sharply disciplined portrayal and could have been more instrumental had his character been allotted more stage time.
Then there's the maid, a wrinkled old retainer who refuses to stay in the house after dark and is the scariest of the bunch. Barbara Duncan Brown renders a gravelly voiced harridan reminiscent of Cloris Leachman's character in "Young Frankenstein." (One anticipates a horse's whinny at the mention of her name.)
The technical effects are the true stars of this show, rattling chains and pounding on walls and even nearly collapsing an entire door frame. Director Brown, who also designed the setting, shares credit for these effects with John McQuay (sound) and Ryan Linhardt (lighting).
"The Haunting of Hill House" is a perfect choice for the Halloween season, opening as it did the weekend before the holiday. With a few of the more talky expository sequences excised, it would be a tricky treat indeed.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "The Haunting of Hill House"
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
Whe n: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 16
Cost: $18 to $22
Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com