For those who, like me, are disappointed by the turn Halloween has taken from frightening to Instagram-worthy, I am pleased to report the triumphant return of a quality seldom seen these days: the spooky. The traditional, bump-in-the-night kind you’d savor from old Scooby Doo episodes. How else to describe Lucas Hnath’s play, which begins almost as a parody of ghost stories before becoming the real thing? Under Les Waters’ efficient direction, The Thin Place sees the playwright use his mother’s recent real-life disappearance to grapple with the cheap tricks, imagination, and faith required in theater-making, turning reality into smoke and mirrors.
As proposed by Mimi Lien’s barebones set, the titular region between our world and the beyond is made of just two armchairs and a side table. Hilda (a magnetic Emily Cass McDonnell) does not budge from her chair, a conversational channel between audience and the eerie world she inhabits. A childhood spent being prepped by her grandmother to receive messages once she’s passed has led adult Hilda back to her supernatural roots after her mother’s mysterious disappearance. McDonnell’s explanation of the play’s title within the first five minutes should inspire eye rolls, but it is a testament to the strength of her performance – somewhere between a jaded, skeptical wink, and earnest confusion – that seeking answers from beyond the grave seems the only logical option. Hilda isn’t just a conduit; it’s her story, after all.
Without articulating how much she buys into the supernatural, or how well-versed she ever became, she finds Linda (an alternately deadpan and off-putting Randy Danson), an English medium, who has recently been granted a visa to stay in the US and praises the country as the birthplace of her profession — what she terms, “spiritualism.” That it’s also birthed the elaborate art of scamming shouldn’t be too far from her mind, a deflating realization for Hilda that shifts their power structure in unsettling ways.
Once admitted into Linda’s inner circle, along comes Sylvia (Kelly McAndrew), Linda’s patron of sorts, and the kind of liberal back-patter who boasts she could “go on about the Norwegian prison system for hours” before recognizing she doesn’t have anything to say. Her cocktail arguments with Jerry (Triney Sandoval), Linda’s politically-connected cousin, give the play great moments of topical comedy that underscore the unsettling fact that Hilda has not uttered a word, or moved an inch since the quarreling twosome entered the scene. Once those two fade away, we’re left with an agitated Linda and a determined Hilda, and Hnath and Waters begin to truly flex their theatrical muscles.
To go much further is to tread into spoiler territory and, though The Thin Place isn’t exactly plot-heavy, it’s the kind of theatrical experience you have to see to (dis)believe. Suffice it to say that Mark Barton’s lighting design consists of simply lighting the stage…until it doesn’t, and that the sounds (not voices) coming from the actors are on par with Christian Frederickson’s mood-setting sound design.
Hnath is a curious playwright whose recent works (A Doll’s House, Part 2, Hillary and Clinton) have explored fallouts and possibilities through dialectic means. Here, the dialectic is less concerned in airing out dirty laundry than in the spaces between performer and audience, fact and self-fiction (“It really is just the most wonderful thing because it means we’re all ‘right’ in a way, right?”) through Hilda’s refusal to accept a fourth wall. It’s a dark ride through a haunted house, gently conducted by the quietest possible figure, and yet I left the theater feeling the excited jitters of a trick-or-treater knocking on a forbidden door.