By David Greenham
An experimental drama, no matter how tempting, has to find a worthwhile outcome. This is not the case with Lucas Hnath.
The thin place by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Dee Dee Batteast. Lighting design by Karen Perlow, costume design by Jennifer Greeke, sound design by Aubrey Dube. Produced by Gloucester Stage, East Main Street, Gloucester, until 23 October.
Hilda (Siobhán Carroll) tries to explain that there is this “other place, this…thin place”. It’s almost imperceptible, “it’s a bit like imagining an octopus in an aquarium pressed against glass… except there’s no glass… and no octopus.”
This is the world of Lucas Hnath’s 2019 ghost story, The thin place. Hnath (Dollhouse, part 2, Christians, and Hillary and Clinton) is one of many American playwrights whose screenplays are frequently produced in the United States and beyond.
Rooted in simplicity – the bare decor consists of two comfortable upholstered chairs separated by a small side table – The thin place is as much an experience as a play. In fact, one of the slender, comfortable places in the theater – the dark space between the actors and the audience – is virtually eliminated as the house lights are on for the majority of the performance.
Another example of the finer lines: Gloucester artistic director Paula Plum delivers the ubiquitous curtain speech thanking sponsors and reminding viewers to silence their cellphones. During Plum’s speech, Hilda de Carroll wanders, cup of tea in hand, to take her place on stage. She is aware of what is happening around her, but indifferent to them. She could easily be a (admittedly confused) audience member who stumbled on stage.
In her first monologue, Hilda breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to some audience members. She remembers a psychic game she played with her grandmother, who wrote a word on a piece of paper and urged Hilda to close her eyes and “open the eye in her head” and listen to the word that grandmother had written. The idea was to create a spiritual connection so Hilda wouldn’t feel so alone after her grandmother passed away. The exercise never worked, but Hilda still believes it is possible. True to the play’s embrace of eccentricity, it’s one of the last times of the evening that the fourth wall is broken.
Given her desire to break through the fine lines, it’s no surprise that Hilda sought out a psychic to see if her dead grandmother could be found. Linda (Cynthia Beckert), a British expat, supports Hilda’s quest with sudden confidence. She exudes a pragmatic attitude: “Now let’s make one thing clear: there is no death, when you die you just move on.”
Linda provides another thin line in Hnath’s dramatic canvas. The line that separates truth and fiction. Hilda sincerely believes that Linda can speak with her grandmother, but the clairvoyant admits that a gadget is involved. “You realize, don’t you, that what I’m doing is some kind of trick, don’t you?” She continues, “What I do is somewhere between the real and the unreal,” adding, “I just sit there and say whatever pops into my head and let the person sitting across from me say it. turn into something.”
Again, Hnath plays with time and place, striking contemporary chords. The more Linda talks about her methods, the more we begin to make connections to our current political dilemmas: garbled speeches that deviate from reality, filled with partial truths, untruths, and outrageous fictional fabrications. Yet, as we know, there are people who believe everything they hear, no matter how untrustworthy the source.
Hnath crosses another thin line in his room. It abruptly explodes the intimacy of the narrative when it introduces Linda’s friends Sylvia (Bren McElroy) and Jerry (Joshua Wolf Coleman). The bare stage suddenly becomes the setting for an absurd social gathering; the proceedings go from a ghost story to a soap opera. Sylvia, it seems, funded Linda’s efforts to become an American citizen. Jerry put Linda in touch with an anonymous, well-known politician; she has to teach him the tricks of the trade. It looks like he needs some help pretending to relate to his constituents.
This curious middle section probes the thin space between friends and co-dependents, as well as ethics and business. Maybe there are too many probes; a look at the line between passionate emotion and angry loss of control is not developed.
The script’s lack of technical elements is somewhat effective, but Hnath is unwilling to stick to this strategy. The second half of the show features some abrupt but subtle lighting changes. The sound design includes the use of a cinematic technique: the sound of a building rumbling suggests a sense of impending doom…or something. Key moments that call for a glass to break or a loud bang to get muddy – they don’t deliver the shocking impact you want.
About two-thirds into production, the ghost story returns – the heartbeat is sure to quicken.
As Hilda, Carroll covers her character with a fascinating veneer of rigid detachment. She’s a wonderful storyteller: the monologues at the beginning and end of The thin place are delivered with extreme clarity. But for much of the middle of the play, the protagonist comes across as a victim of circumstance, not a young woman searching for answers.
Linda de Beckert brings a compelling, if repulsive, force to the action. She shares her stuff with a brutal and shocking naturalness. But her story is starting to sound strained — possibly untrue — and it’s unclear why. His fine line becomes increasingly blurred after being repeatedly attacked by Sylvia. After a few nudges and some wine, Sylvia told Linda. “I think you’re taking advantage of people,” she says, and concludes, “I think what you’re doing is doing a lot of harm.” Instead of starting a conflict, Hnath drops the case – the characters leave the scene. Upon their return, the heated exchange apparently never took place.
While this pair is offstage, another awkward exchange takes place between Jerry and Hilda. Perhaps that’s the role McElroy’s Sylvia and Wolf Coleman’s Jerry are meant to play. They are practical devices introduced to distract attention from the intimate room we thought we were looking at. At first, Hilda says she is very comfortable with Linda; she is clearly uncomfortable when she has to take care of Sylvia and Jerry. What to think of this pile of ambiguity? An experimental drama, no matter how tempting, has to find a worthwhile outcome. Hnath does not.
David Greenham is Adjunct Lecturer in Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta and Executive Director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for over 30 years.