Port Tobacco Players Theatre takes on the paranormal in its current production, "The Haunting of Hill House."
The F. Andrew Leslie play, billed as a psychological thriller, is based on the novel by Shirley Jackson. While the production offers some good goose bumps, it falls short of being truly scary.
The show focuses on Hill House, an old mansion whose previous inhabitants have experienced madness, suicide and other violence. As research for a book, Dr. Montague has assembled a team of people with a history of psychic experiences to help him prove the existence of the supernatural in the house. Hill House seems to reach out to one of them: Eleanor, a thirty-something woman with no family and few friends, finds herself at the center of much of the paranormal activity. Fearing for her safety, Dr. Montague demands that Eleanor leave the house, with disastrous results.
Much of the show is seen through Eleanor's eyes as she is drawn into the supernatural influences of the house. As Eleanor, Darla Robinson shows character growth from the somewhat reserved, schoolmarmish woman we first meet to the happier, more assertive person she becomes. While the growth is evident, it doesn't always ring true. Robinson brings energy to the role but just isn't quite credible as we watch her growing fears. We do, however, believe the new-found happiness she discovers within the walls of Hill House, and her reluctance to leave is utterly convincing.
By contrast, Randy Tusing's portrayal of Dr. Montague is much more natural and believable. His intensity is on the mark, and he completely sells Montague's demeanor. His relationship with Mrs. Montague is strained, and Tusing does a nice job of letting us know it.
The supporting cast is mixed. Lisa Kay Morton is enjoyable as Mrs. Montague, the domineering, colorful psychic of the group. Lauren Kennedy plays Theodora with good energy and wry humor. She sometimes rushes her lines in her enthusiasm, occasionally making it hard for the listener to understand what she's saying. Kyle Tusing's Arthur Parker is appropriately bookish, but his affected accent could leave audience members wondering what he just said.
Carol Charnock deserves special note as the imposing housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley. Her delivery is right on. She plays the role with the dignity it requires yet comes across like something out of "The Addams Family." Hers is one of the smaller roles in the production, which is unfortunate.
The book on which this play is based was written in 1959. That may explain why the language in the script seems stilted and dated although the play is set in the present day. It is tough for the actors to get a natural flow in their speech when reciting lines that sound so old-fashioned.
The show's strengths lie in its technical elements. The set, designed by Steven Silk and built by John Merritt, is stunning. It is sturdy enough to stand up to strong physical exertion, and Sherry Santana's set dressing makes it appear ready to inhabit. Replete with doors that open and shut by themselves, the set is a work of art. Hill House itself is quite possibly a character within the show, and the set accomplishes that feat.
The lighting design by Michael Bell offers several special effects, all appropriately used and not overdone. This is a demanding show from a lighting perspective, and Bell's design delivers. Nelson Hower's sound design incorporates both taped and live sound effects, adding eerie dramatic impact to the performance. The pre-show and intermission music perfectly set the mood for a psychological thriller.
There are many good things about this production. If you like scary houses and things that go bump in the night, you'll enjoy the premise. Just don't expect to be white-knuckled by the end of it.
"The Haunting of Hill House," directed by Allison Harmon Betz and produced by David Standish, runs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with a 3 p.m. matinee Sunday, through Oct. 16. General admission, $15; students and seniors, $12. For more information or reservations, call 301-932-6819.