Few writers have been able to shake a cocktail of mental instability and the paranormal quite as deftly as Shirley Jackson, who died far too early at 48 in 1965. Her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, has long set the standard for the genre of psychological horror and left its mark on later writers, notably Stephen King. Since publication, two film versions of the novel have been crafted, and F. Andrew Leslie created a stage version which is currently in production at the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves, continuing on November 9-12, directed by Betsy Gasoske.
The plot is simple: Three guests -- unstable Eleanor, played by Tori Stukins; the alluring Theodora, interpreted by Alexis Peterson; heir to the property young Luke Anderson, portrayed by Christian Davis--are invited by psychic investigator Dr. Montague, played by Tim Paeltz, to spend a week in an allegedly haunted house in an isolated corner of New England. During their stay, the guests are tormented not just by the alleged ghosts, but also by Jadienne Nolan Davidson in the role of the officious housekeeper Mrs. Dudley, and, later, by Lindsay Morrison-Jahr as the annoying and petulant would-be investigator Mrs. Montague, along with her obsequious assistant, Terry TenBroek in the role of Arthur Parker, a pertinacious headmaster of a private boys' school. What follows is both theatre of the mind and -- perhaps -- of reality as the house and its occupants experience crashes and booms, spectral touching, cold spots and spirit writing on the walls.
The stage version of Jackson's play has been criticized by some as being long on words and short on action. The confines of a small stage make it difficult to portray the vastness of a Victorian mansion, as the movie versions did. For those reasons, any production of the play might benefit from rapid dialogue and exchanges between the actors. This production seemed just a bit slow-paced, yet Betsy Gasoske assembled a good ensemble cast that seemed to work well together and performed with professionalism. Every actor spoke with clear and excellent diction and inflection, and the production was food for the mind as well as the eyes. Lindsay Morrison-Jahr, in the person of Mrs. Montague, managed to enliven the second act of the play with her faster-moving crisp retorts, and the other actors responded in kind, driving the play to a dramatic climax.
It was clear that everyone involved in the production had rehearsed well and all maintained a good command of their lines. It was also clear that Gasoske, assisted by Pepi Parshall, had studied the play thoroughly and tirelessly, giving their level best to every detail of the set and the movements onstage. This is a play that does not rely on lavish design and overwhelming display; that is left to the viewer, but it requires a solid production to do so.
Now in its 91st year, the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves is clearly a labor of love from everyone involved with its productions and ongoing work. Attention to a few basic details might polish their image even more. For instance, when informal talks are presented by theatre staff prior to performance, it might help if they used a small microphone and waited for audience members to be fully seated (thereby avoiding the atmospheric but annoying creaks from the wooden chairs and floors that drowned out the speakers beforehand).
However, it must also be noted that the Guild should be very proud of their beautifully written programs, their on-target sound system for recorded music, and their fine control of lighting and temperature. (And offering light refreshments during intermission doesn't hurt, either!) This production is well worth seeing, and the Guild should be very proud of its many contributions to maintain and support community theatre.