Anyone seeking a haunted house experience this Halloween season need look no further than “The Haunting of Hill House,” now at The Little Theatre of Alexandria. The company mounts a satisfyingly spooky production of the chilling tale.
As director Maggie Mumford says in her show notes, Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which provides the play’s source material, has influenced many a horror writer in the 20th century. In many ways, it’s one of the ultimate haunted house novels, and has certainly had an extended pop culture life, first as a very good 1963 film, starring Julie Harris; remade as a widely panned 1999 film; and most recently as a pretty good Netflix serial, which departs fairly significantly from the original plot.
What does remain a constant throughout these incarnations, is the house, which acts as both a backdrop and as character in itself. Ken Brown and Peter Mumford’s scenic design shows us an antique parlor, with well-appointed furniture and portraits of stern men on the walls. A chess set appears ready at the edge of the stage, signaling the supernatural game that will be played.
… a satisfyingly spooky production of the chilling tale.
The first to arrive at this scary mansion is Eleanor Vance (Shannon Labadie). She is introduced to the house by the unsmiling Mrs. Dudley (Danielle Taylor, delightful), the grim housekeeper who informs her, and us, that no one will come near the house at night, with a kind of smug satisfaction. Her warning, often-repeated to the other house guests, is the story’s first eerie portent.
Eleanor is soon joined by Theodora (Kathy Ohlhaber), who becomes an immediate friend and ally. The purpose of their presence is revealed with the arrival of Dr. Montague (Bruce Alan Rauscher), an enthusiastic, if affably pompous host. He shares, somewhat reluctantly, the dark history of the house, assuring his companions, which also includes Luke (James Murphy), the heir to the house, not to put any stock in “spooky stories” as he believes house poses no physical threat. Even so, he’s invited the two women for their supernatural ability, and possible sensitivity to the other-wordly phenomenon.
He’s a man of science, but not a skeptic; their presence at Hill House serves as a kind of supernatural “experiment” where he hopes to show that the rational mind can triumph over the supernatural, all of which will be grist for his book.
F. Andrew Leslie’s script remains fairly faithful to the novel, gradually building a sense of dread, a feeling only heightened by the actual silence of the sound design. “It’s as if the house wanted silence,” says Eleanor, early in the first act.
The story itself is full of silence and ellipses; the first scare happens offstage, and is only described, allowing audience imaginations to create their own picture.
To this end, the supernatural entities also remain unseen, but not unheard. Janice Rivera’s sound design and lighting by Jeffrey Scott Auerbach and Kimberly Crago, combine to create a credibly scary haunting. More is communicated through a glowing door than would be with a fully realized ghost.
It soon becomes clear that the people, not just the house, are haunted. Eleanor reveals a family bereavement that has left her untethered. Shannon Labadie does a nice job of embodying the character’s awkwardness, as well as her yearning for connection. She finds it in Theodora, played with panache by Kathy Ohlhaber.
A flamboyant presence, emphasized by her colorful wardrobe (courtesy of Jean Schlicting and Kit Sibley), Theodora contrasts well with Eleanor’s friendly reserve. Ohlhaber embraces the character’s complexity, both in Theodora’s sociability, as well as her genuine concern for Eleanor’s wellbeing, especially as the hauntings continue to manifest.
Director Maggie Mumford paces the scares nicely throughout the show, with sequences of dialogue lulling the audience into a false feeling of security. As the characters learn more about the house, and about each other, the intensity and stakes of the spooks increase, escalating in the second half as the House takes a liking to Eleanor.
The experiment is thrown into a bit of upheaval with the arrival of Mrs. Montague (a fantastic Patricia Nicklin), the doctor’s wife, a whirlwind that arrives at the end of the first act. Effortlessly superior, she condescends to the living and the dead equally, believing that all the “spirits” of Hill House want are to communicate, an opportunity that she believes only she can deliver.
It certainly doesn’t end well for everyone. And as in any great haunted house mystery, not every gets to leave.
Running time: About 2 1/2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.
Advisory: Some spooky moments.
“The Haunting of Hill House” runs through Nov. 9 at The Little Theatre of Alexandra. For tickets or more information, click here.