When Max (Sadieh Rifai) and Henry (Travis A. Knight) arrive at the cabin on the mountain seeking shelter after a car crash as a once-in-a-lifetime blizzard descends, the place seems empty. Empty, but not lifeless. Soon they are joined by one of the children who live there, then the others, until finally their guardian Raleigh (Kirsten Fitzgerald) arrives, welcoming the couple to stay the duration of the storm, and the whole household is present.
Almost the whole household.
Wait and see.
Ordinary and Uncanny in Fragile Equilibrium
Just as the inhabitants of the home seem normal enough at first glance, Kurtis Boetcher’s set, a cozy living room and kitchen, initially presents a quaint, wholesome atmosphere. Yet in both the mannerisms of the residents and the decor of the cabin there is the suggestion of something a bit off. Case in point: when Marlow (Sarah Cartwright), the most assertive of the children, first sees Max and Henry, she carries a knife. Understandable when two strangers have unexpectedly shown up at your dinner table. Yet this reasonableness is somewhat undercut by her immediate reassurance that the knife isn’t long enough to kill them, “even if you went through the eye.”
As Max gets to know her adolescent hosts and Henry fitfully recuperates from his broken ankle, the strangeness of the situation only grows. Who are these kids? Why does the lone boy of the group (Charlie Herman) have no name, just a plethora of nicknames? What is the children’s relationship to Raleigh, who is only “sometimes” their mama? And why is the only medicine in the house the jars of well-aged moonshine in the fridge?
Grey House’s Technical Elements Heighten Mood
The rising dread the couple feels --and us along with them--is enhanced by the stagecraft. Mike Durst and Claire Chrzan’s lighting design plays tautly on contrasts: between day and night, between natural light and electric, and especially between what we, the audience, can see and what the characters can.
At the same time, Jeffrey Levin’s musical arrangements and sound design raise and lower the tension in the room, building the suspense over the play’s crackling hundred minutes. Elenna Sindler’s music direction of these arrangements provides a few deceptively cheerful moments of respite from the darkness, with the girls--Marlow, A1656 (Haley Bolithon), Bernie (Kayla Casiano), Squirrel (Autumn Hlava)--and later on Max executing them with impressive rhythm and harmony, in this writer’s view.
A Red Orchid Peels Back Layers of Pretense
At the start of Grey House, the relationships that form the bones of the play appear straightforward. Max and Henry’s marriage, Raleigh and the children’s family: simple. The pressures of being stuck together in the cabin gradually reveal cracks in this facade, though, especially as the kids begin to expose the couple’s pasts. Old wounds (both suffered and inflicted) are reopened. A game of Show and Hell reveals the girls own histories as a far cry from the quiet mountain life suggested by Boetcher’s set and Karen Kawa’s costumes.
Ensemble member Levi Holloway has crafted a tightly woven story of truth and family and pain. The cast adeptly draws the audience into the mysteries of the house, giving glimpses of its true nature but leaving plenty to chew on at the end. A Red Orchid offers a dark, twisting tangle of secrets--and just a little glimmer of hope.
Horror fans, mystery fans, lovers of twists and turns--this one’s for us.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Title: Grey House
Written By: Levi Holloway
Directed by: Shade Murray
Dado (The Ancient), Kirsten Fitzgerald (Raleigh), Travis A. Knight (Henry) and Sadieh Rifai (Max) withSarah Cartwright (Marlow), Haley Bolithon (A1656), Kayla Casiano (Bernie), Charlie Herman (The Boy) and Autumn Hlava (Squirrel)
Kurt Boetcher (set design), Karen Kawa (costumes), Claire Chrzan and Mike Durst (lighting design), Jeffrey Levin (sound design) and Ryan Oliverand Brant Mc Crea (special effects). The creative team also includes Elena Sindler (music direction),Kristin Schmidt(ASLinterpreter) and Christa Van Baale (stage manager).
December 08, 2019
Thursdays and Fridays:7:30 p.m.
Saturdays:3:00 p.m. and7:30 p.m.
A Red Orchid Theatre
1531 N Wells in Chicago
About the Author:
Harold Jaffe is a poet, playwright, amateur trapeze artist, freelance greeting card designer, and now, unexpectedly, a theater critic. He earned a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Olin College and since returning to Chicago has worked extensively with Cave Painting Theater Company and the late great Oracle Productions. His chapbook Perpetual Emotion Machine is now available at Women & Children First, and his reviews of shows around town are available right here.