Harbor Stage Company’s Summer Ghost Story: The Thin Place
The stage is nearly bare: two chairs and a table. That’s it. And as the play begins, the house lights are kept on (later all the lights will be turned off), a disconcerting experience that sets the stage—pun intended—for Lucas Hnaith’s The Thin Place, now playing at the Harbor Stage Company.
The play’s title refers to the liminal space dividing life and death, a locale frequented by mediums and spiritualists, one of which, Linda (played by Harbor Stage regular D’Arcy Dersham), is an Englishwoman in America planning to teach her craft to an American politician, for reasons that remain murky but can be easily guessed.
But it doesn’t open with Linda: instead, the first person onstage is Hilda (Harbor Stage founding member Stacy Fischer), who tells one audience member, “You remind me of my grandmother.” Before her grandmother died, the two tried to communicate without words in anticipation of a future in which they would live in different realms. Seeking a way to reconnect, Hilda is drawn to Linda, who assures her that if she listens closely enough, she can get to that liminal thin place and talk with her grandmother again.
Jerry (Harbor Stage founding member and artistic director Robert Kropf) and Sylvia (Harbor Stage founding member Brenda Withers) abruptly shift the mood as they arrive with wine to celebrate Linda’s successful visa application, and although Sylvia is Linda’s patron, she also questions Linda’s “tricks,” accusing her of taking advantage of grieving people.
Hilda, however, is in deep and insists on Linda continuing to contact others; her trust in Linda’s abilities is so complete it unnerves even Linda herself, who tries to explain that her “tricks” involve psychology more than spiritualism.
Finally the lights all go out as Hilda ventures, herself, into the thin place. The play struggles a little here as it tries to remove—or even expose—the veil between the two worlds; what it does better is reveal the “manipulative nature of persuasion” that can help (or take advantage of) those experiencing grief and loss.
It’s a play about listening, though it gives no weight to whether or not what is being said is the truth—is it real, or is it what the listener wants to hear? And which do we prefer?
Director Jeff Zinn has cast the play perfectly. Kropf’s trademark slouch speaks volumes; Fischer’s Hilda is wide-eyed, seemingly innocent, and demure; Withers brings a sparkle to anything she touches; and Dersham’s mysterious persona—humorous and sinister in turn—keeps a throughline going, though her accent needs some work.
Hnaith’s title is fitting, not just in the sense of the liminality between worlds but also in more practical terms: it’s almost insubstantial. Alison Fischer Greene’s set is nearly bare; characters are wearing instantly forgettable clothing; it’s difficult to put one’s finger on just what might or might not be happening. Horrible things are hinted at but left unspoken, in (of course!) the best tradition of ghost and horror stories.
But it’s also a pleasure to see these four accomplished actors take the very thinness of the play and weave a stunning, creepy (thanks in part to lighting design by John Malinowski), and ambitious performance. Harbor Stage Company again delivers a powerful experience, deftly touching nerves and pulling the audience into a world where reality just might be what you want to believe. Or… not.
The ending isn’t entirely satisfying, but there’s an interesting lingering aftertaste as the audience leaves after a protracted time spent in total darkness. It should come with a warning: the ghosts that emanate from this stage might well be your own.
The Thin Place is at Harbor Stage Company through September 3.
Images: Edward Boches and Joe Kenehan.