- Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
- Gina Stevensen
A spooky mist surrounds the stories in The Thin Place, an engrossing new play by Lucas Hnath that uses the supernatural as a setting. The Vermont Stage production proves theater's power to pull viewers to the edge of their seats.
It's not so much a ghost story as an experience of the ghost story's essence — the need to believe the uncanny, the rapture of listening, the skin-crawling dread of what happens next. Atmosphere, not events, sends the chills. But the play's idea is unsettling, too: People believe when they're told what they want to hear.
Hilda, a delicate young woman, describes playing a game with her grandmother — an impossible mind-reading effort in which she tried to guess a word her grandmother had written down. The two practiced this to improve their communication and to build a bridge that might last beyond the grave. This keen need to connect left Hilda trained to listen, to hope for messages. After her grandmother's death, she wants to get close to the thin place between the living and the dead.
Hilda wants this place to be real. And, as she says, it's almost too easy to start seeing what you're looking for. When she encounters Linda, a medium, she is fascinated to learn that people can communicate with spirits. Hilda attends a sitting, and Linda channels Hilda's grandmother, making statements that take cues from Hilda's reactions.
The ethereal Hilda and the pragmatic Linda become friends. Linda is not precisely a cynic. She admits to lying about what she can sense from another world, but she's listening very closely to what's said in this one. It's a talent. And it hasn't made her contemptuous of her customers, to whom she offers resolution of the emotions that haunt them. Her work, Linda says, is like psychotherapy, except it actually works. Telling a young woman that her dead dad is proud of her could heal her.
Even when Linda tells Hilda that what she does is essentially a trick, Hilda can't surrender her hope that connecting with spirits is possible. The story widens to include Jerry and Sylvia, well-off friends whom Linda has cultivated. When they all gather for drinks, Hilda tells them about the last time she saw her mother alive.
That eerie story is only one of several in a play that's essentially about storytelling. Hnath writes naturalistic dialogue but turns it to a purpose, using a rambling pace to hint that anything might happen. Suspense rises in the theater like a fog in the evening chill.
The play is about listening. The actors reveal what the characters are experiencing as much by attention to each other as by what they say or do. We watch them think. When someone is speaking in this play, it's worth wondering whether the words are true or simply what the listener wants to hear.
To create a somber atmosphere, director Jordan Gullikson refines the actors' movements to precise, limited gestures. Hilda's deliberate steps to reach a chair or Sylvia's placement of a wine glass are measured enough to be a tinge otherworldly. A sense of stillness descends as Gullikson elicits performances in which actors connect by concentrating on each other. Nothing is grand or loud; the mood is intense because the crucial exchanges occur when someone grasps what's said.
As Hilda, Gina Stevensen succeeds at the difficult acting challenge of making a prim, quiet character absorbing. Stevensen uses a flat, slightly mannered delivery and buries every hint of sorrow. It's up to the viewer to decide what kind of pain lies within. She radiates a sense that she's withholding something powerful. As the play unfolds, viewers learn to listen harder and harder.
Linda is from England, just exotic enough to impress her American clients. Chris Caswell portrays her by mastering the Midlands accent and making Linda a powerful presence, nearly the opposite of Hilda. She speaks firmly, even coarsely at times, and has an athletic dare-you set to her shoulders. She's tough enough to take people's money but gentle as she draws them out. Caswell makes Linda impossible to pin down on any moral spectrum.
- Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
- Gina Stevenson (left) and Chris Casewell
Jerry is a rich, self-satisfied modern bro played by Andrew Cassel. Just like Linda's clients, he knows what he wants to hear, but in his case it's ready rationalizations for every question about privilege. Cassel's best work comes when he explores another thin place, the loss of inhibition. He makes Jerry just slightly drunk when he questions Hilda about her connection to Linda.
As Sylvia, Linda Wolfsen displays the character's affluent, regal bearing with a dancer's facility for movement. Wolfsen also captures the character's need for some spiritual purpose. Hnath has written Sylvia as both entitled and empty, and Wolfsen airily lurches on her beautiful high heels between satisfaction and neediness.
Scenic designer Chuck Padula makes a small island of a set within the Black Box Theater at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center, marooning a table and two high-fashion chairs on a rug. The austerity nearly crackles. That emptiness becomes a canvas for lighting designer Dan Gallagher to define moods with forceful lighting. Gallagher uses natural color to make the world seem solid, then drains all natural hues away when the action, or Hilda's thoughts, become surreal. Light does a lot of the haunting here, along with Jess Wilson's enjoyably unsettling sound design.
Costume designer Sophia Lidz tells much of Hilda's story by giving her drab knit pants and a blouse with a droopy tie. Lidz dresses Linda in a too-busy blend of patterns and gives Jerry a vest that doesn't fit, but she hits the shorthand of the very rich by giving Sylvia just-right slacks and a beautifully draped tunic.
From start to ambiguous finish, the play toys with truth and imagination. At last Thursday's performance, an audience of strangers gathered in the dark were gripped. The play's events are intentionally insubstantial, and viewers can't be sure of anything except the need to listen very, very hard.