Erin Stillman Jump in The Haunting of Hill House. Photo: Chicken Coop
The Haunting of Hill House
Adapted for the stage by Andrew Leslie
Based on the novel by Shirley Jackson
Directed by Jason Cooper
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
No less an authority than Stephen King has called Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, “…one of the finest horror novels ever written.” A masterpiece of portent and suggestion, it invites the reader to bring their own imagination to bear on the story.
Theatre, not unlike films and television, tends to provide more to the audience. We demand ghosts and other supernatural phenomena manifest themselves. We cherish the effect, Whereas Jackson leaves us to question things, Andrew Leslie’s play allows ghosts to appear as characters onstage.
I want to be careful to avoid saying more because director Jason Cooper is ingenious in using simple theatricality to good effect here, fashioning an old-fashioned spookfest that is a refreshing respite from the unsubtle violence and gore. The less you know, the better.
Jackson’s story is iconic and influenced many that followed. Dr. John Montague (Scott Goodman), an investigator who hopes to find scientific evidence of the existence of the supernatural rents Hill House for a summer and invites as his guests Eleanor Vance (Erin Stillman Jump), a shy young woman who resents her reclusive life caring for her disabled mother, Theodora (Sage Martin), an unorthodox and self-confident artist; and Luke Sanderson (Duncan Phillips), the young heir to Hill House, who is host to the others. There is also the housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley (Hanna Jones Thomas) whose duties are limited – “I don’t serve!” and leaves every night before dark to return to her home in the village six miles away.
Things happen. Noises, lights flicker, and people believe they see things. And what about that locked door to the tower? By the time Mrs. Montague (Katherine Summerfield) arrives to check on her husband’s progress with the upright Arthur Parker (Chad Ballard) in tow, there is no doubt that Hill House is haunted.
This play can seem old-fashioned to the point of creaky to a modern audience, but Cooper understands the value of creepy over the shocking and lets his able cast underplay the early, dialogue-heavy scenes into a slow build – the opening night performance might have been a tad too slow – until more and more mysterious occurrences dominate the narrative.
Although her character feels overdone, my favorite among the cast was Katherine Summerfield. The problem is after the more restrained playing from the others, she almost seems to have walked from an entirely different play. In particular, I had a hard time buying the idea that the disciplined intellectual Dr. Montague, smartly realized by Goodman, married this blowsy, self-important, and wholly fraudulent person. But Summerfield commits to the character with wonderful energy and comic timing.
The other stand-out performance was Hannah Jones Thomas’ severe but amusing read on Mrs. Dudley. Her time on stage is limited, but Thomas plays every saturnine moment with relish.
Everyone else is solid, and Jump, Martin, Phillips, and Goodman all work within the same, low-key tone; Jump naive but alert to the spirits, Martin saucy and tart, Phillips laid back and with an underwhelmed sarcasm, and Goodman grounding the quartet with his stoic investigator’s perspective.
The sound design, by Cooper, and Jesse Alford’s lighting contribute a great deal to the tense and macabre atmosphere, but I won’t tell you exactly how. A play like The Haunting of Hill House can be difficult to review in full without spoilers, but suffice to say that the production does a very good job of realizing Andrew Leslie’s less vague take on whether this house is haunted. Attending it is a vote for intelligent, more traditional horror classics (as is KY Shakespeare’s The Turn of the Screw), and who knows, you might even decide to read the book.
Featuring Chad Ballard, Scott Goodman, Erin Stillman Jump, Sage Martin, Duncan Phillips, Katherine Summerfield, & Hannah Jones Thomas
The Haunting of Hill House
October 21 & 28 @ 7:30 pm
October 22, 23, 29, & 30 @ 8:00 pm
October 24 & 31 @ 2:00 pm
October 24 @ 7:00 pm
The Chicken Coop Theatre Company
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.