Saturday, November 11, 2023

"The Thin Place" at Gremlin Theatre

Halloween may be over, but if you're still looking for a spooky theatrical thrill, look no further than Gremlin Theatre's production of Lucas Hnath's The Thin Place. Those of us who were lucky enough to see this play last year as part of Daleko Arts' final season know what a twisty psychological thriller it is, full of jump scares and real human emotion as the characters try to connect with loved ones they've lost. But even knowing what was coming, this production still got me! And if you haven't seen the play before, you're in for an even bigger treat as the story unfolds. Featuring a fantastic four-person cast, well staged in Gremlin's intimate thrust space, it's a delightfully chilling 90 minutes of theater. Pair it with a pre-show beverage at Lake Monster Brewing and/or dinner at King Coil, both next door in Vandalia Towers, and you have a perfect dinner-and-a-show evening. See it Thursdays (except Thanksgiving) through Sundays until December 3, plus a pay what-you-can-want performance on Monday November 20.

The play begins with a young woman, whom we will soon learn is named Hilda, speaking directly to the audience, with the lights up. She tells us the story of her grandmother, with whom she used to play mind games as a child, in preparation for being able to communicate after death. Hilda's mom did not like this, and threw Hilda's grandma out of the house, shortly after which she died. Hilda's been searching for her since, and combined with the recent mysterious disappearance of her mom, with whom she had a strained relationship, she's very curious about the other place, the "thin place." She meets Linda, who works as a medium, and as they become friends Linda readily admits that she's just sort of making it up as she goes along, using intuition and observation to tell people what they need to hear. But is that so bad, if they get closure? Hilda's not sure, and after a party with some of Linda's friends, she decides to confront the spirit of her mother, even if she never gets the answers she's looking for.*

Jane Froiland is Hilda (photo by Alyssa Kristine Photography)
Gremlin Artistic Associate and Resident Director Ellen Fenster-Gharib directs the piece with a wonderful sense of building tension, the paranormal elements balanced with grounded human moments and the natural sometimes overlapping dialogue of the scenes. This is a great ensemble, but Jane Froiland carries much of the weight as Hilda, with a lot of narration that seamlessly segues into scenes. She begins the show as the lights are still up and the audience is still chatting, just starting to tell a story. Her performance is filled with real and raw emotion that pulls us along on this journey with her. Even when she's silently watching the others (Hilda is a listener), you can watch the emotions play across Jane's face, and even in the way she holds her body. Cheryl Willis is a delight as the eccentric Linda, with a fantastic and specific British accent (because she's actually British). As Linda's friends and party guests, Peter Christian Hansen (Gremlin's Artistic Director) and Katherine Kupiecki only appear in one scene, but it's a long scene and a good one, and they really get into it.

Cheryl Willis as Linda (photo by Alyssa Kristine Photography)
The design and technical elements are crucial to the success of the show, and they're spot on here. Gremlin's square stage is mostly empty, with just two big comfy armchairs and an end table in the center of the space. Hilda is dressed in conservative, almost mousy clothes, contrasting with Linda's flowy and flamboyant medium garb and purple hair, and the party-goers chic clothing. The lighting goes from all the lights on, to candlelight, to utter and total darkness, then a few red lights casting a creepy glow. The sound design subtly and ominously grows, with a few startling sounds causing some jump scares. And there's a bit of theater magic that I won't say too much about, but keep your eyes peeled. (Set and lighting design by Gremlin's Technical Director and Resident Designer Carl Schoenborn, prop and costume design by Sarah Bauer, sound design by Katharine Horowitz.)

Lucas Hnath's plays have been seen on #TCTheater stages quite a bit in recent years (The Christians, The Doll's House, Part 2, and Red Speedo to name a few), and they're always smart and interesting and thought-provoking, with natural sounding dialogue. The Thin Place is no exception. Not only does it deal with the very big themes of grief, loss, and what may or may not exist after death, but it also explores how some people manipulate and exploit others' emotions and vulnerabilities to get what they want, whether that's a paycheck or an election win.*