Unlike horror movies, which want to scare the bejesus out of us, Lucas Hnath’s cerebral ghost story The Thin Place merely wants to creep us out and perhaps have us think about the possibility of an afterlife.
Whether or not you are persuaded by this curiously structured play, which demands several leaps of faith by its audience and ultimately ends on theatrical gimmickry, you are bound to agree that you have never seen a drama quite like this one.
The title refers to that slim space that separates the living from the dead. The play explores those who try to reach out and communicate over that divide. At least that seems to be what Hnath is getting at, despite the work’s several unrelated tangents.
At its center of the production at Boca Stage is a woman named Hilda (the company’s go-to female lead Jacqueline Laggy), still grieving over the death of the grandmother to whom she was close. Before her passing, the grandmother had been performing telepathy exercises with Hilda, hoping to be able to reach out to her from beyond the grave. In an extended opening monologue, we also learn that as close as Hilda was to her granny, she was estranged from her own mother and she remains puzzled over her mysterious disappearance.
Hilda then attends a “sitting” — a séance — conducted by a wily British ex-pat psychic, Linda (cunning Lourelene Snedeker), who does seem to conjure the spirit of Hilda’s nana. Amazed and appreciative, Hilda becomes friends with Linda and is taken aback when the seer blithely concedes that such communing with the deceased is simple trickery. In one of Hnath’s more droll lines, Linda explains that what she does is not that different from psychotherapy, “except what I do actually works.”
In any event, no sooner are we drawn into the attraction and tension between Hilda and Linda, and the potential existence of an afterlife, that the scene changes to a dinner party where we are introduced to two new characters, Hilda’s cousin Jerry (a puckish Steve Carroll) and his friend Sylvia (a skeptical Kim Ostrenko). We learn a bit more about Linda, who left the UK for America ahead of criminal charges for not disclosing that her psychic act is mere entertainment. But the more these new characters natter on and the discussion moves away from the afterlife, this middle section starts seeming like padding from an entirely different play. Nor is it aided by Jerry’s attempt to tell the scariest story he knows, which he forgets mid-narrative.
Hilda had been sitting silent in the background throughout this scene, but she is eventually moved to tell her own spooky story. It concerns her return to her missing mother’s unkempt house and an unnerving phone call she receives there, presumably from the thin place. The story is compelling and appealingly related by Laggy, who snaps us back into being involved with the disjointed narrative, before it ends with a couple of pseudo-eerie magic tricks.
There is enough offbeat material in The Thin Place to attract director Keith Garsson, even if the experience is ultimately thin. Hnath is best known for his two Broadway efforts –– A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Hillary and Clinton — each also intriguing without being fully satisfying. You are unlikely to be bored by The Thin Place, but expect to find much of it head-scratching.
THE THIN PLACE, Boca Stage, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sun., Nov. 20. $45-$50. 561-300-0152 or visit www.primalforces.com.