Finally it’s October, which means two things: cooler weather and Halloween (although the stores would like you to believe it’s Christmas already). Richardson Theatre Centre has tried to get into the Halloween spirit by mounting The Haunting of Hill House, an adaptation of the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel that most regard as the finest example of a haunted house story ever written. Sadly, when transferred to the stage, Jackson’s eerie, suspenseful tale falls flat on its face, and this production’s muddled direction, tedious pacing, and often-laughable acting don’t particularly help.
In addition to this play (for which no playwriting credit is given), the book spawned two films: a semi-faithful version in 1963 and a liberally tricked-up one in 1999 starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. What both films had to their advantage were editing and camera direction. It’s far easier to create a mood when you have full control over what your audience sees and doesn’t see. While some of the technical elements of the Richardson production nearly rise to the occasion—namely Charles A. Alexander’s capable Victorian set design and director Rachael Lindley’s spooky music and sound effects—they’re overshadowed by everything else that doesn’t succeed.
We’re told that Hill House “was born bad.” An isolated country home built by a mysterious and rather unlucky man named Hugh Crain, Hill House was the cause of several unfortunate accidents, prompting Crain to abandon the house, move abroad, and send his two daughters to live with family. After his death, the two sisters engaged in a bitter feud that ended in scandal, possible murder, and gruesome suicide. The house has stood empty for 20 years. Dr. Montague (Terry Abshire), an investigator of the supernatural, has invited two women with a history of experiencing paranormal events to the house, along with a relative of the property’s current owner. During the course of their stay all are subjected to frightening phenomena, but none more so than Eleanor Vance (Sara Montgomery), a timid women who until recently spent her life caring for her invalid mother. Eleanor’s fragile mental state and sudden unnatural attachment to the house only heighten the tension.
Or they’re supposed to. You see, this production can’t decide if it’s creepy or campy, and doesn’t commit decisively enough to either direction. One minute the characters are terrified of the chain clanking and door rattling heard throughout the house, and the next they’re sipping tea and playing chess as if nothing is amiss. Take out the scary bits and we’re left with nothing more than a rather dull parlor room play punctuated by randomly placed melodramatic declarations. The actor’s wooden interactions with each other, as well as a habit of tripping over each other’s lines to the point of incoherence, rob the play of any believability and give it a herky-jerky momentum. Add to that the interminably long pauses between scenes and it’s no wonder the audience begins to get fidgety.
There are bright spots, though not many. Katy Kirkwood entertainingly channels Suzanne Sugerbaker as the flashy, ESP-loaded Theodora, and Samantha McChesney Franks snootily bulldozes her way into the ghostly getaway as Dr. Montague’s late-arriving wife. Confusingly, it seems as though two male characters have been recast with female actors, leading to some odd moments of dialogue and unintentionally strange dynamics. But that’s truly the least of this show’s worries. When a play amasses as many unintentional laughs as this production does, that’s downright scary.
Sarah McChesney and Sarah Montgomery in The Haunting of Hill House (Courtesy of the Richardson Theatre Centre)