By Eric Marchese
Published: Oct. 31, 2014 Updated: 2:37 p.m.
Shirley Jackson is considered one of our finest horror writers, and great stories like The Haunting of "Hill House" from 1959 gained wider acclaim via the 1963 film version directed by Robert Wise, which was retitled "The Haunting"
A year later, playwright F. Andrew Leslie created a stage adaptation of the novel. Costa Mesa Playhouse's production of this rarely seen version is too tame and civilized for its own good, offering no major frights - yet fans of Jackson's work likely will still want to see it, if only out of curiosity.
The opening scene, which sets things up, has a sort of Agatha Christie feel to it as those who've been invited to Hill House try to get to the bottom of why they've been so assembled.
First to arrive is Eleanor Vance (Stephanie Thomas), who seems kind, timid and a little prudish. Next is Theodora (Elle Grant), a much more worldly young woman than Eleanor. Finally, we meet Luke Sanderson (Gabriel Lawrence), nephew of Hill House's elderly owner, and Dr. John Montague (Robin L. Watkins).
Researcher Montague, a confirmed skeptic, has asked Eleanor, who as a child had an encounter with a poltergeist, and Theodora, who has well-documented powers of ESP, to help him try to uncover the nature of the evil that seems to envelop the isolated East Coast mansion.
Luke's presence was mandated by his aunt, who owns the long-deserted house, as a condition for allowing Dr. Montague and his two young lady assistants to take up temporary residence as they try to document any unusual phenomena.
The setup for this chiller is well-handled by director Michael Dale Brown. But scene after scene, we get only a couple of good scares of the "things that go bump in the night" variety. Sadly, for anyone looking to get the heck scared out of them, this staging of "Hill House" stays stubbornly grounded, failing to generate an ominous sense of foreboding.
Part of the problem lies with the performances, which are either humorous or innocuous, and part with the overall tone. To keep from getting too caught up in the grip of fear, Eleanor, Theodora and Luke try to make light of the house's history of death and madness. Yes, we get that they're whistling past the graveyard - but the production should (but doesn't) force us to feel whatever fear they're feeling.
Nor does this "Hill House" do much with the ever-changing dynamic between its three principal characters. Well into the evening we begin to realize that the sad, soft-spoken Eleanor is the focal point for some of the strange goings-on, but Thomas' high, small voice, which doesn't project well, and overall meekness are static until the final scene. She doesn't become engulfed by the structure's malicious forces, so neither do we.
Grant's flip, sardonic demeanor is refreshing, and Barbara Duncan Brown elicits chuckles and lends the staging some gallows humor with her dry, quirky reading as Mrs. Dudley, an old woman from the nearby town who has agreed to cook for the team but makes it clear she'll vanish before nightfall.
As head researcher Montague, Watkins is sometimes fun to watch, but his entire portrayal is pegged too heavily to jovial affability when more layers - and a darker, steelier undertone - are needed.
As Montague's wife, who claims to be able to connect to a spirit medium, Kay Richey generates laughs through her character's shrill theatricality. As her pal, a boys prep school headmaster, John Sturgeon does likewise - but the last thing this staging needs is comic relief.
What it does need is more intensity and more distinctive readings from Watkins, Thomas and Lawrence and, overall, a more convincing sense that everything about Hill House screams menace and doom.
While director Brown and John McQuay's sound effects partly help in this area, some sort of musical underscoring would go a long way while complementing Brown's pre-show and between-scene use of Bernard Herrmann's music from "Psycho", "Vertigo" and "Citizen Kane" anything that would give this production more of a raw charge of emotion.