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By John Quinn
Posted: Oct. 7, 2012 at 4:35 p.m.
Back when I was 11 or so, I rashly chose to read Shirley Jackson's novel, "The Haunting of Hill House." What a read! I was totally unprepared for the sophisticated interplay of psychological and paranormal themes, the mounting tension of anticipated terror, and most of all, Jackson's rare talent for unforgettable descriptive passages. In short, it scared the bejeeuz out of me.
So when Meadow Brook Theatre announced that "The Haunting of Hill House" would be a salute to otherworldly October, I wanted to revisit my misspent youth. Would the young folk in the audience be seduced by the play, as I was by the novel, leaving them fit for nothing but a life of debauchery and theater criticism? The answer is "no." The Meadow Brook production is not only suitable for mature audiences of all ages, "Haunting" remains, as described by The Wall Street Journal, "the greatest haunted-house story ever written." Jackson's novel was published in 1959; it's often imitated, never equaled. One could dismiss her plot and characters as stereotypes – there're not. These are the prototypes of the genre.
The 80-year-old Hill House had become known for supernatural activity. Dr. John Montague (Hugh Maguire), a scientific investigator of the paranormal, rents the house to conduct studies for an upcoming book. He has invited guests who have had unexplainable "experiences;" only two respond. They are Eleanor Vance (Robyn Lipnicki Mewha), a socially awkward mouse who has spent her life caring for her invalid mother, and Theodora ("Just Theodora"), a flamboyant artist, allegedly gifted with ESP, played here by Leslie Ann Handelman. They are joined by Luke Sanderson (Peter C. Prouty), the young heir to Hill House, as representative of the family.
Hill House wastes no time in betraying its malevolence. The nights are filled with slamming doors, maniacal laughter, scrawled messages on the walls and "something" that holds Eleanor's hand in the dark. Eleanor senses the house wants to "consume her."
And here we come to the basis of this story's appeal. F. Andrew Leslie, who adapted the novel for the stage, has retained Jackson's ambiguity of plot. Are the terrors the poltergeist-like manifestations of Eleanor's damaged psyche? Was the house somehow poisoned by its disturbed builder and its later occupants? Or – are some houses born bad? The resolution is what we choose to make of it.
Director Travis W. Walter again delivers a beautifully balanced ensemble, but special note must be made of Robyn Lipnicki Mewha's interpretation of Eleanor. Her turn from wide-eyed naif to panicked outcast is sincerely, elegantly played.
In a departure from the novel, this stage adaption allows three seasoned character actors to play their roles for a little welcome comic relief. They are the forbidding and somewhat malicious housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley (Ruth Crawford); Montague's crackpot, occultist wife (Judy Dery), and her partner in psychic excess, Arthur Parker (Anthony Guest). Each is mining underwritten roles for maximum advantage, especially Guest, who uses broad physical comedy to flesh out a character which has very few lines. I'm not sure what to make of his lower-class British accent – the character is identified as headmaster of a boys' academy, and one would expect an upper-crust affectation. Perhaps this is a subtle indication of just how worthy a schoolmaster he really is.
While no physical representation can reproduce the suspense and terror created in the imagination, the production values of Meadow Brook's production are top-notch and full of surprises. Scenic designer Kristen Gribbin, who last year explored the depth of the theater's cavernous stage with her multi-layered set for "Something Wicked This Way Comes," now uses its soaring height. What seems to be a single setting – the "small" parlor at Hill House – conceals, not hidden passages, but whole hidden sets. In combination with Reid G. Johnson's eerie lighting, the design is a thrill-fest all its own.
I may make too much comparison between play and novel, but I'll end here where the novel begins: "... Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might stand for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."
If that passage sends chills up your spine, wait until you see the play!
SHOW DETAILS: "The Haunting of Hill House" continues at Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Rd., Rochester, Wednesday-Sunday through Oct. 28. Running time: 150 minutes. Tickets: $31-$40. For information: 248-377-3300 or www.mbtheatre.com.
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