The scariest moment of “The Haunting of Hill House” was a perfect metaphor for the performance of the play itself.
Two women who are guests in the house sat huddled on top of a bed together, holding each other for comfort. As an intangible knocking sound emanated from the depths of the house, a spectral form slowly began emerging from the wall of the room the women are in. It stretched the wall itself, as if it were made of a pliable rubber or elastic, and seemingly threatened to burst right through at any moment.
The women, to my confusion, seemed mildly affected. Their lines suggested they were frightened, but nothing about their tone of voice or demeanor even remotely suggested the absolute mortal terror that should have been a result of the events unfolding around them. I later found out what I saw may not have been all that it appeared.
The performance, a play performed as part of the South Plains College theatre program, was staged from Oct. 26 to Oct. 29 in the Helen DeVitt Jones Theatre. The story, based upon a 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, revolves around four guests—at varying levels of understanding and willingness to be in attendance—who find themselves gathered at a famous supernaturally affected home: Hill House.
The main cast includes several “detectives” searching for answers about the house. Dr. Montague, played by Spencer Pellowski, is a specialist in ghostly dealings who is looking for hard evidence that the house is haunted. Theodora, played by Chantel Davis, is a noblewoman (possibly a princess) who acts as Montague’s largely apathetic and flippant associate. Eleanor, played by Lorena Lopez, is a lonely and delicate young woman who has some sort of clandestine or psychic background. And Luke, played by Joshua Rodriguez, is the heir to Hill House, and the primary source of comic relief in the show in combination with Dalynn Beck’s portrayal of Mrs. Dudley, the repetitive and obstinate caretaker of the home who stays away when she can manage.
A few technical issues caused me some confusion in the performance I attended.
The blocking of the actors onstage was puzzling at times. Actors were frequently either sitting around idly talking for several minutes at a time without moving, or standing completely in front of one another, sometimes even facing the back wall of the stage to deliver what could have been important dialogue.
It wasn’t without some standout moments, however. Beyond the fantastic effect of the ghost reaching through the wall, one moment that gave me chills involved a door that had remained locked for the entire show eerily unlocking and opening itself, and drawing a main character into the unknown, unseen depths that lied within.
I was led to wonder whether my confusion was due to was unclear writing, unsure acting, or moments being skipped or performed out of order.
I felt compelled to research the source material the play was based on, and it turns out the original novel is widely held up as one of the best literary ghost stories in the entire 20th century. During the show, I couldn’t understand why people weren’t reacting appropriately. But, in doing my research, I read that some of it was supposed to be all in a single character’s head.
This revelation clarified much of the confusion I had about the story. And I think with another weekend or two, most of the blocking and dialogue issues would have likely improved as well.
I’m sorry to say this is the first play I’ve ever seen at South Plains, because I’m a big fan of theatre, and the arts in general. For a short run show, put together on limited time and last minute changes, it was a good effort. Even with the hiccups, I’m greatly looking forward to seeing more plays at SPC in the future.