By David Greenham
An experimental drama, no matter how tantalizing, has to come up with a payoff that makes its bewildering journey worth it. Lucas Hnath’s doesn’t.
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, through October 23.
Hilda (Siobhán Carroll) tries to explain that there’s this “other place, this … thin place.” It’s almost imperceptible, “it’s sort of like if you were to imagine an octopus in an aquarium pressed up against glass … except that there’s no glass … and no octopus.”
That’s the world of Lucas Hnath’s 2019 ghost story, The Thin Place. Hnath (Doll’s House, Part 2, The Christians, and Hillary and Clinton) is one of a slew of hot American playwrights whose scripts are being produced frequently throughout the US and beyond.
Rooted in simplicity — the bare stage set consists of two overstuffed, comfortable chairs separated by a small end table — The Thin Place is as much an experiment as it is a play. In fact, one of the theater’s comfortable thin places — the dark space between actors and audience — is all but eliminated because the house lights are on for the majority of the performance.
Another example of the thinnest of lines: Gloucester artistic director Paula Plum delivers the ubiquitous curtain speech thanking sponsors and reminding viewers to silence their cell phones. During Plum’s speech, Carroll’s Hilda wanders on, cup of tea in hand, to take her seat on stage. She’s aware of what’s going on around her, but indifferent to it. She could easily be an (admittedly disorientated) audience member who stumbled onstage.
In her first monologue, Hilda breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to particular members of the audience. She recalls a psychic game she played with her grandmother, who would write down a word on a piece of paper and urge Hilda to close her eyes and “open up the eye inside her head” and listen for the word that grandma had written. The idea was to create a spiritual connection so that Hilda would not feel so alone after her grandmother passed. The exercise never worked, but Hilda still believes it could. True to the play’s embrace of eccentricity, this is one of the last times during the evening that the fourth wall is broken.
Given her desire to break across thin lines, it’s not surprising that Hilda has sought out a psychic to see if her deceased grandmother could be found. Linda (Cynthia Beckert), a British expat, backs up Hilda’s quest with brusque confidence. She exudes a no-nonsense attitude: “Now let’s get one thing straight: There is no death, when you die you merely pass on to something else.”
Linda supplies another thin line in Hnath’s dramatic web: the line that separates truth and fiction. Hilda earnestly believes that Linda can talk with her grandmother, but the clairvoyant admits that a gimmick is involved. “You do realize, don’t you, that what I do is sort of a trick, right?” She continues, “What I do sits 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 turn it into something.”
Here again, Hnath plays with time and place, striking contemporary chords. The longer Linda goes on about her methods, the more we begin to make connections with our current political dilemmas: stump speeches that veer far from reality, filled with partial truths, nontruths, and outrageous fictional inventions. 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 play. He abruptly blows up the intimacy of the narrative when he 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 morph from ghost story to soap opera. Sylvia, it seems, has been bankrolling Linda’s efforts to become a US citizen. Jerry has put Linda in touch with an unnamed, well-known politician; she is to teach him the tricks of the trade. It seems that he needs help pretending to connect more closely with his constituents.
This curious middle section probes the thin space between friends and codependents, as well as ethics and business. Perhaps there are too many probes; a look at the line between passionate emotion and an angry loss of control is left undeveloped.
The script’s lack of technical elements is somewhat effective, but Hnath isn’t willing to stick with that strategy. The second half of the show features some lighting changes, abrupt but subtle. The sound design includes the use of a cinematic technique: the sound of a building rumble suggests a sense of impending doom … or something. Key moments that call for a glass to shatter or a loud bang come off as muddy — they do not deliver the desired shock impact.
About two-thirds of the way through the production the ghost story returns — heartbeats are sure to quicken.
As Hilda, Carroll coats her character with a fascinating veneer of stiff detachment. She’s a wonderful storyteller: the monologues at the beginning and end of The Thin Place are delivered with pinpoint clarity. But for much of the middle of the play, the protagonist comes off as a victim of circumstances, not a young woman seeking answers.
Beckert’s Linda brings a compelling, if repellent, strength to the action. She shares her tricks with a blunt and shocking matter-of-factness. But her backstory starts to come off as strained — possibly false — and it’s not clear why. Her thin line becomes increasingly blurry after it is repeatedly attacked by Sylvia. After some prodding, and wine, Sylvia tells Linda off. “I think you take advantage of people,” she says, and concludes, “I think what you do does a lot of harm.” Instead of triggering conflict, Hnath lets the matter drop — the characters leave the stage. When they return, the heated exchange apparently never took place.
While this pair is offstage, another uncomfortable exchange takes place between Jerry and Hilda. Perhaps that’s the role that McElroy’s Sylvia and Wolf Coleman’s Jerry are supposed to play. They are convenient devices brought in to shift the focus away from the intimate play we thought we were watching. Early on, Hilda says that she’s very comfortable with Linda; she is clearly uncomfortable when she has to deal with Sylvia and Jerry. What to make of this pile-on of ambiguity? An experimental drama, no matter how tantalizing, has to come up with a payoff that makes its bewildering journey worth it. Hnath’s doesn’t.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.