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March 26, 2022 Comments Off on Review: Delicious Goosebumps For Adults With ACT’s “The Thin Place” Views: 481 *Seattle Theaterland, #Theater and Stage, Arts & Entertainment, Reviews, Stage

Review: Delicious Goosebumps For Adults With ACT’s “The Thin Place”

ACT’s production of The Thin Place, 2022. Photo by Truman Buffet.

Ermahgerd!

It’s a scary good time at ACT right now with their production of Lucas Hnath’s THE THIN PLACE, a taut 90 minute ghost story that keeps asking the non-musical question, “what do you believe in?” It’s a theme that Hnath seems to like…his 2015 play The Christians explores issues of faith within the context of a fundamentalist mega church. Hnath himself grew up in a family with strong ties to that brand of Christianity and he continues to explore those kinds of issues or perhaps more accurately, exloring the various meanings of doubt as well as belief and how we frequently come to believe in the things we WANT to believe in as opposed to the version we’re less inclined to embrace.

The title is quickly explained in a long opening monologue by our protagonist Hilda, an earnest woman who seems much like any pleasant thirtyish to 40ish woman you might meet in your day to day life….a co-worker at your office, perhaps in Human Resources, or that nice teacher in your 10 year old’s grade school, or the new receptionist at your dentist’s office. Pleasant, nice if not a tad…bland? Vaguely likeable but also blending a bit into the woodwork. Someone who’s nice to talk to about things but not someone you would pay much attention to if they started sharing things about their life.

But, Hilda, at the beginning of The Thin Place, has something to say and things to share with us. She’s worried and concerned but also a bit excited about things going on in her life, and specifically with her family. As a child, Hilda had a close relationship with her eccentric grandmother who was a firm believer in an afterlife and a spiritual world beyond our own and tried to develop in Hilda an understanding of that world and how to potentially be in touch with it. The grandmother would call attention to what she called “the thin place” where the walls are thin between our mortal world and the spirit world beyond.

Child Hilda was fascinated by her grandmother’s stories and practicing ways of communicating non-verbally but Hilda’s mother was appalled by this and forced the grandmother to leave the household. Not long afterward, the grandmother had a stroke and died and Hilda regrets not being able to be with her at the end. She also seems to resent her mother for banishing the grandmother and Hilda has had a complicated relationship with her mother over the years since then. As Hilda is speaking to us, onstage in a long opening monologue, we also gradually learn that the mother has seemingly gone missing from Hilda’s life.

The play then introduces its second principal character: Linda, an earthy British woman older than Hilda and a psychic medium. The women connect at an open, public session where Linda seems to have gotten into contact with Hilda’s grandmother, sending Hilda hopeful and specific messages which comfort her. But, there’s one question the Spirit of Hilda’s Grandmother isn’t able to answer: “where is Hilda’s mother?” According to Grandma, she isn’t there WITH her in the afterlife.

Excited by the contact with her grandmother as well as interested in Linda herself, Hilda becomes a personal friend with her and the two start to share quite a lot of time together. While Hilda wants to learn more about the spirit world and about Linda’s specific psychic abilities, Linda is stubbornly resistant to sharing that part of her life with Hilda until eventually she caves in and admits the truth: “It’s just tricks.

 From left to right: Ray Gonzalez, Abigail Boucher, Julie Briskman, and Alexandra Tavares in ACT’s production of The Thin Place, 2022. Photo by Truman Buffet

Hilda is a bit crushed to discover it’s not “real”…Linda simply cold reads people and tells them what they want to hear based on the information she draws out of them. Are they her…targets? Marks? Subjects? She defends herself by saying she is actually helping people by giving them comfort and aiding them in resolving issues with their departed family members. Hilda accepts this reasoning but only up to a point and remains friends with Linda but she still has doubts. Linda can’t seem to explain how she knew some very specific details about Hilda’s relationship with her grandmother. And, it also seems odd that Linda has breathing issues at times after she discusses her “tricks” and the spirit world…it’s almost like the spirit world is punishing Linda when she does that.

And, that’s just the first third or so of The Thin Place but it establishes important themes of the play…asking questions about what we believe and how we believe and what we’re willing to believe. The play is always questioning and asking us to confront those same questions as we question our own beliefs as well as our own doubts about…well, many things including reality and our own mortality.

Oddly, Hilda takes a back seat in the middle section of the play which brings in two new characters, both friends of Linda, at an awkwardly odd wine fueled get together. It’s hosted by Sylvia, a vivacious but rather vapid upwardly mobile lady of privilige who has apparently been helping support Linda financially from time to time. There’s a strange vibe between the two and some hints they may have been more than friends.

There’s also Jerry who is a “player” with “connections” who helps Linda deal with her tricky immigration status. Jerry arranges for Linda to help an eager politician with his media skills, teaching him some of the tricks of her trade, in exchange for his help in getting her green card situation straightened out. The trio of Linda, Sylvia and Jerry dominate the conversation with Hilda sinking into the background, as the three friends argue over a variety of topics including the propriety of Linda teaching her “tricks” to a politician. Sylvia and Linda get especially heated in their fighting and exit the scene for a bit which then finds Jerry and Hilda alone together and Jerry revealing a few things about all their relationships while also hitting on Hilda just a little bit and attempting to tell his own version of a ghost story.

But, once Linda and Sylvia return to the party, Hilda again takes center stage to finally reveal more about a story that she’s so far just vaguely alluded to: the mysterious disappearance of her own mother nearly a year ago and that’s when things get progressively…

Creepy.

Hilda’s story is strange and creepy and the way she tells the story is also creepy and odd and certain events occur during the telling of her story that may be occult related or maybe just coincidence but one thing that does start to become clear is the dawning of the realization that maybe Hilda isn’t as “real” or benign as we thought she might be. Is Hilda a reliable narrator or is she the one actually calling the shots and playing everyone for fools, the audience as well as the other characters onstage?

This leads to the ending section of the play which involves Hilda and a very relunctant Linda visiting Hilda’s former home and the last place where Hilda’s mother was seen alive. And, it also means….I can’t reveal any more plot because, you know….

Spoilers.

I really loved this play and this production. It’s that rare treat…a play that claims it’s actually a spooky night of theater that actually delivers. I’ve seen other plays that have made that claim, including the very popular 2 hander, The Woman in Black which has been running forever in the UK and on tours, including a stop in Seattle a couple years back, and frankly, they never really do the trick. Scary and creepy are tough to achieve in the theater, in my opinion. It’s all about creating the right atmosphere and while you have to obviously have the right text, it’s also important to physically create that atmosphere via the actors and their performances and the guidance of the director and the designers and stage technicians all working in tandem to create those moments that can chill the spine and create those “goosebumps” we all adore.

And, I think director Brandon J. Simmons and this excellent cast and crew have pulled that off. While I’m not normally a fan of theater in the round, here being in ACT’s Allen Theater is a real asset…this is a ghost story and we’re the captive audience around the campfire hearing and seeing that ghost story come to life. Connie Yun’s evocative lighting design and the subtle but quite powerful sound designs of Matthew Starritt and Erin Bednarz are also major contributors to the creation of that experience. At one point towards the end of the play, the entire theater is bathed in a terrifying red light with the strongest beams of light illuminating a section of the audience, all wearing their Covid mandated masks, and the effect was really quite chilling…it was a theme of the play coming to life! What was reality and what was the horror? The story being told onstage or the reality of a masked audience enthralled by that story as it was being told while existing in a world changed forever by the need to wear a mask to thwart a deadly epidemic? Or, was it both?

I think the play is a strong one. I did question the middle section and the introduction of the two supporting characters…they definitely changed the mood of the play and it was an awkward and odd transition at first and one I didn’t initially like. The two new characters seemed to unhinge the play a bit. I think ultimately they work…you need secondary characters to bounce off ideas and reiterate themes and to help prolong the suspense. In thrillers, you question the presence and motivation of every character. The characters of Sylvia and Jerry are a send up of priviliged yuppies and represent their own brand of “darkness”. Sylvia is a socialite who yearns for a simple life while drinking from $200 wine glasses while Jerry is aiding and abetting politicians to create palatable public personas.

Evil.

The play is strong but I think the production here is even stronger. I did watch some clips and a trailer from the original production at Playwrights Horizons in New York and that production seemed….not very scary. It seemed pretty flat, in fact. And, that’s not a fair assumption as it’s based solely on some brief clips from YouTube but I didn’t get sense of the fun menace to be found in the ACT production. I think much of that is due to Brandon Simmons and his direction of the piece; he seems to be deliberately looking for ways to up the creepy factor. There’s definitately a “Lynchian” menace here, especially in the performances and how they are directed. There are moments of long pauses and sudden moments of abrupt silence and queer little moments where the characters don’t act like most characters do on stage. It’s deliciously unsettling.

There’s also a very powerful cast here with fine support from Ray Gonzalez as the wryly slimy Jerry and Alexandra Tavares as the very affected rich lady, Sylvia. They’re an elegantly chic pair of supporting…villains? victims? (And, here is my moment to praise the very precise costume design work by Cathy Hunt…her very subtle work is so on point for all four characters with Jerry, Alexandra and Linda all very stylishly clad in perfectly tailored clothes, while Hilda, of a much lower social standing, just the slightest bit off in simpler and plainer pieces. It really helps define all four of those characters perfectly.)

And, as always, the divine Julie Briskman is great fun as the British medium, Linda…it’s a richly robust and earthy performance. Briskman’s Sylvia is a ribald Falstaffian con artist and she’s a great treat to watch in all of her modes. I will carp a wee bit on her accent; it seemed to roam a bit from north of England to “ye olde Gypsy Fortune Teller” at times but you could also argue that was part of Linda’s larger than life personality, too. Putting on different voices and code switching from flamboyant psychic to sardonic sceptic would be part of Linda’s “act”.

Finally, there’s the truly exceptional Abigail Boucher as Hilda, an actress new to Seattle but certainly one who has made a mark here with this lovely performance. Hilda is the center of the play and you have to have the right actress in that role, someone who can center the work (in every sense) but also able to be commanding even when the character is quietly listening to the other characters. Is Hilda as sweet as she initially seems or has she been taking everyone on a ride for an hour and a half? That’s the question posed and one never totally resolved and it takes a steady hand to portray that. It’s a perfectly nuanced performance and always completely compelling. I hope to see more of her work in the future.

Most of all, I’m thrilled to finally be able to write about a production I really, really enjoyed, the first one since we returned to seeing and reviewing theater. I don’t really do “grades” or stars or cute codes to rate productions but ACT’s The Thin Place is a very solid A effort from their production team. It’s a smart, engaging work that manages to creep into all the thin places in your mind to dwell and fester and haunt you for the rest of night.


Review: The Thin Place by Lucas Hnath. Produced by ACT. Directed by Brandon J. Simmons. Set Design by Lex Marcos. Costume Design by Cathy Hunt. Lighting Design by Connie Yun. Sound Design by Matthew Starritt and Erin Bednarz. With Abigail Boucher, Julie Briskman, Ray Gonzalez, Alexandra Tavares. Onstage at ACT from March 18, 2022 to April 10, 2022. Tickets at: https://acttheatre.org/2022-mainstage-season/the-thin-place/

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