Thursday, January 20, 2022

Review: Samantha Mathis Shines in Bleak “Whisper House”

Whisper House (c) Richard Termine

Theater: Whisper House 
Presented by The Civilians at 59E59 

Premise: Not unlike “The Secret Garden,” “Whisper House” takes place in wartime in which a young boy named Christopher (Wyatt Cirbus), whose father was killed in battle in WWII and whose mother is having a mental breakdown, is whisked away to live with his Aunt Lily (Samantha Mathis) in a lighthouse (!) in Maine. With no maternal instinct, Lily tries to make life comfortable for her nephew, but the lighthouse is unfortunately haunted by two ghosts (Molly Hager and Alex Boniello) and they have their sights on Christopher. Under the threat of a possible German invasion along the East Coast, the local policeman (Jeb Brown) is focused on the lighthouse as a way to thwart any attack, but he’s particularly interested in Lily’s handyman named Yashiro (James Yaegashi), an immigrant from Japan, whom he and Christopher suspect might be a spy. 

My Take: After the success of “Spring Awakening,” Duncan Sheik’s next project was “Whisper House” in 2010, which, although it takes place during World War II, is essentially a chamber musical about lost souls, figuratively and literally. Co-written by Kyle Jarrow, the show premiered at the Old Globe and had the occasional production, but after 10 years, it’s only now having its New York premiere. Sheik has written many musicals in between, including the underrated “American Psycho” adaptation and “Alice by Heart.” And while I found a lot to admire in “Whisper House,” it has the same problem Marsha Norman had with her musical adaptation of “The Secret Garden”–what are we going to do about the ghosts? Director Steve Cosson doesn’t seem to have a satisfying concept to represent them on stage, opting for a Haunted Mansion-ish approach that feels rather hokey. Sheik doesn’t help matters by having them sing rather portentous songs about how the living would be better off dead, not exactly an inviting theme for a musical. The actual story of Aunt Lily and the lighthouse is compelling, but the ghosts (through no fault of the actors) just can’t wait to comment that it’s not going to end well. Thanks for the heads-up. 

VIP: Samantha Mathis. Mathis, who has done fine work on screen like “Little Women” and “How to Make an American Quilt” when she was younger, has slowly been making an impression on stage. She was very good a few seasons ago in “Make Believe” and she is almost unrecognizable here as the old maid aunt in the lighthouse. She makes Lily not only a believably resilient woman, but also a sad one who has more or less cut herself off from society. Her scenes with the equally fine James Yaegashi are the highlights of this engrossing but sadly uneven show.

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