OPENING NIGHT OF ‘THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE’
By ART CHANCE, THEATER REVIEWER
I visited Valley Performing Arts in Wasilla for the opening night of “The Haunting of Hill House,” written by F. Andrew Leslie (novel by Shirley Jackson), and directed by Joe Myers.
Valley Performing Arts is community theater and many of the performers in this play are first-timers to the stage. A couple of the actors are still in high school, and it was Joe Meyers’ directorial debut.
I’ve found this theater company’s play selections to be refreshingly wholesome; if you long for post-modernist deconstruction, dark sarcasm, and rapier-witted cynicism, there is plenty of that in Anchorage and it abounds in Juneau. “The Haunting of Hill House” is family entertainment and I’d be comfortable bringing a child of double digit age to the theater.
Hill House is a dark, isolated, and uninhabited mansion attended only by its thoroughly unlikeable and somewhat sinister caretaker Mrs. Dudley, well played by Katheryn Hays, one of the first timers.
The house is thought to be haunted and macabre rumors of its past are plentiful. Several people have tried to live there, none has stayed more than a few days, and none will talk about the experience.
Professor and investigator of supernatural phenomena Dr. Montague, played by Jason Bailey, arranges a short lease of the house so that he and his guests can plumb the house’s psychic secrets. Thus the story begins.
The play is staged on one set which realistically portrays a Victorian Era parlor and a bedroom. Two doors lead to a hallway we never see and an always-locked door to a tower.
The play opens as Mrs. Dudley escorts the first of Dr. Montague’s guests, Eleanor Vance, into the parlor. Eleanor is played by 15-year-old Lakell Lee, a sophomore at Houston High School. Her performance belies her age and is, I think, the best performance of the play.
We soon meet another guest, Theodora, played by Fairbanks Drama Association veteran Kymberly Snell, now a Wasilla resident and new to this theater company. Both Eleanor and Theodora have psychic experiences, which is the reason Dr. Montague has invited them to Hill House.
Next, Dr. Montague arrives with another guest, the foppish Luke Sanderson, heir to Hill House.
Luke is played by 19 year-old Landon Lee. Mr. Lee offers us a convincing and natural portrayal of the droll and sarcastic young Luke.
The final characters we meet are Mrs. Montague, the doctor’s wife, and her friend and driver Arthur Parker, who are late arrivals.
It must be written somewhere that loud, over-bearing women have to have either New York or Southern accents, and demeanors to match. Anchorage theater veteran Jacqueline Hoffman convincingly plays the thoroughly unlikeable Mrs. Montague, although I must say that to my once-Southern ears, the fake Southern accent was like fingernails on a blackboard.
Finally, Colony High student Chayce Christenson offers us the ambivalent Arthur Parker, a dilettantish, tough-guy master of a boy’s school. We are left to wonder if Arthur is Mrs. Montague’s special friend or if he is gay, as the byplay between Arthur and Luke insinuates. In any event, these titillating side notes are handled with subtlety.
Valley Performing Arts makes much of how scary the play is, but the reality is that it’s a Vincent Price movie or “Dark Shadows” kind of scary, not the Freddie Krueger or “Nightmare on Elm Street” kind of scary. If you take your kids. you won’t have to worry that they’ll wake up screaming that there is an axe murderer in their room. There is no blood and gore or graphic violence. The violence is in the minds of the characters, particularly in Eleanor’s mind.
The play is carried along by Dr. Montague, whose role is partly as a character engaged in dialog with the other characters and partly as narration posed as dialog. Mr. Bailey has to carry a heavy load; he has far-and-away the most lines in the play. He carries the load pretty well, but not without some muffed lines and a bit of halting delivery, some of which might have been merely opening night jitters.
You may judge if his character is professorial or simply pedantic. At times I longed for taking my red pen to the script.
While Dr. Montague is the dominant character, at least when his domineering wife isn’t on stage, the real story is Eleanor’s. As the story develops we learn that Eleanor is frightened, lonely, and desperately seeks love and belonging. Eleanor’s quest for belonging is the real story. You don’t have to think deep or dark thoughts to enjoy the play, but they are there for your perusal if you desire it.
The weather is still pretty good; Friday night was a beautiful evening for a drive, the road is still lit, and the traffic was not burdensome, although it does move right along.
When you get to Wasilla, there are plenty of nice places for food and drink before or after the play and you don’t have to step over or around anything on your way from your car to the entrance.
And if you find you’ve had too much fun, there are nice places to stay. An evening at “Hill House” is a nice Halloween diversion for the whole family.
Regular admission is $19, students and seniors $17. The play runs through Nov. 3, 2019, Fridays and Saturdays at 7 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Valley Performing Arts is located at 215 West Swanson in Wasilla, about one minute off the Parks Highway.
Art Chance is the theater reviewer for Must Read Alaska and also writes a regular column that appears here, whenever he is in the mood.