"The Haunting of Hill House" has been a go-to for ghostly entertainment since the publishing of Shirley Jackson's novel in 1959. By 1963 it had been made into a very successful film that captured the essence of the book in a way the other versions haven’t quite been able to until the highly popular television series re-imagined it for our era.
Jackson’s gothic Victorian mansion fills the stage at the Long Beach Playhouse. Designed by Sean Grey with lighting by Justin Castillo, and sound by Andrew Wilcox, the environment is immediately mood setting upon entering the space.
There was a light haze in the air making the environment seem indistinct and spectral. I only wish that there had been environmental sound or music — or both — while we waited for the action to begin.
The play, an adaptation by F. Andrew Leslie, seems to be very faithful in tone to the book. It is a sort of record of psychic manifestation that talks more about the paranormal than it shows and is dotted with interjections of humor. As a play, this has to be delectably balanced so that the humor is used to carefully relieve the tension that has been growing. Then, after the laugh, you can begin to build the tension again.
The humor in the Playhouse's production was primarily found in the performances of Phyllis M. Nofts as Mrs. Dudley, the stoic housekeeper, and Marcia Bender as Mrs. Montague an amateur medium. These two actors have wonderful timing and are able to evoke a laugh with a look as easily as with a turn of phrase. It was wonderful to laugh with them, even though the tension they were supposed to be relieving was never built.
Our four primary paranormal investigators were capable actors in their own rights.
The men in the play were mostly solid, although Mitchell Nunn as Dr. Montague seemed to struggle with his longer speeches. It was the women, most certainly, that held down the paranormal part of the evening. Jade Yancosky created a scattered and impressionable Eleanor. Likewise, Paige Laney as Theodora crafted a worldly and brusque persona that worked in tandem with Yancosky.
They did everything they could as actors to bring us to this haunted house with them. However, the tension that needed to be built through timing and subtext was never really established. The lack of tension coupled with ghostly visuals didn’t really deliver chills.
Here is the real rub of it all. In a book, your own imagination fills in the ghosts, and on screen special effects can really do all the work as cinema is a dream-like art form. Onstage, however, pulling off truly scary ghost moments is more difficult. There are Victorian spiritual effects, like the "peppers ghost" effect used in Disney’s haunted mansion, and modern effects using ionized water fog and projection, but neither of those were used here.
Primarily a smoke/fog machine strapped to the lighting grid emitted billows of chem fog when a manifestation was happening. The lights would pulse and flash in ghostly purple and green and the sound design did all it could as loudly as it could.
This all seems to be the opposite of what I believe the theater can do well. The theater is less like film and more like books. The less it shows, the more you imagine.
Every door in every set leads only into wings. Place a flat painted with wall paper and hang a portrait on it and now I can imagine it leads down a long and spooky hallway. This was accomplished perfectly. But a ghost is a shadow, a cold spot, a whisper, even possibly silence. Darkness in this case would be your friend. Show me less. Footsteps in the hallway? Perfect! Knocking on the bedroom door? Perfect. Banging to escalate the tension? Perfect. Any more than this and I am no longer scared, especially if I can see the effect coming before it arrives.
"The Haunting of Hill House" is built to be a series of terrifying psychological teases. Its long stretches of dialogue are meant to, with the right direction, take the audience down a series of dark hallways that lead to the next red herring until we discover the true intention of this unsettling exploration. This production has its moments, but they are lightning flashes on a stormy night.