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Whisper House

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There is music and there are songs, but this is not a musical. There are ghosts, but this is not a ghost fable. There is a plot, but this is not the point.

It is much easier to say what Whisper House is not than to decipher what it is. The rambling world premiere production on San Diego's Old Globe Theatre stage features an Emmy Award-winning actor (Mare Winningham), a Tony Award-winning composer (Duncan Sheik) and an experienced director (Jason Hart). Michael Schweikardt's scenic design is brilliant, with scrims and foggy shadows that define the mood around the huge spiral staircase.

It would seem that this play-about-something-that-could-be-illogical-fears had a lot going for it. But, as any chef knows, a collection of ingredients does not, in itself, make an inspiring dish. In this case, plopping all the best into a pot and stirring it occasionally has created a less than flavorful stew. Kyle Jarrow's book and lyrics need serious adjustments.

Take the songs. The 8-member orchestra conducted by Jason Hart produces sounds that are somewhat haunting, in a rock 'n' roll kind of way, rather fun, and innovative. The words, delivered by the two ghosts (a daring Holly Brook and an energetic David Poe), serve to tell tales of ghastly episodes and to warn the audience of mayhem to come. In that latter vein, they resemble the admonitions and announcements of the Greek chorus, moving the play along and offering some audio variety. On opening night, the sounds were more banshee than spectral, however, as the mikes produced screeching that threatened to do severe eardrum damage. Corrections later in the evening made the sounds more bearable. Yet, there are problems with the story-telling purpose. "The Tale of Solomon Snell," a long, windy number about a man buried alive, is one example. It makes no sense to those who do not know the reasons behind the Victorian penchant for coffins with bells attached.

The bells are a contrivance throughout the play. Because the context for their peals, dings, and clangs is lacking in the script, they become noises without nuance.

The storyline is simple enough. Set in WWII New England, the play focuses on Lilly (Mare Winningham), a lighthouse keeper, and her adolescent nephew Christopher (a wooden, but promising - he works so hard that he will surely grow into the role - A.J. Foggiano), who has come to live with her after the death of his aviator father and the mental breakdown of his mother. Lilly has no experience with children, so their initial meeting and adjusting brings some welcome and delightful humor to the plot. As the plot thickens, Lilly shows that taking in is not the same thing as taking care. Changing and adapting is not something that she is wont to do, so poor Christopher is left to his own fears and devices.

Lilly's philosophy about fear is that it should never prevent one from achieving, yet it becomes clear that she would rather talk the talk than walk beyond her own mental and physical self-imposed confinement. The play's primary theme is fear. The ghosts that haunt each of the characters are reminders of what is lost by fearing to embrace the life-altering powers of change and chance.

Christopher's fears are justified and obvious. Who wouldn't be scared of the dark and the deep, given his recent history? And his newfound benefactor does nothing to help allay them.

Lilly has taken over and run a lighthouse for many years, so we can assume that she is not a stupid or incompetent woman, but her character as written is densely imperceptive. Ok, so she has never been around children. But come on, it doesn't take a child psychologist to understand that this kid has had some serious trauma, including his current residential upheaval, and deserves communication and attention beyond "You ask too many questions" and bowls of sugarless oatmeal. An accomplished actor who can wring tears from a dry Kleenex when she has a decent part, Winningham makes the best of this unlikeable character, and her New England accent seems to fall easily off her tongue. But she has been given too little to do and not much to accomplish in Lilly's stoic pessimism. Until the final scenes, this agoraphobic and self-centered woman presents as patently unlikeable, except to the sheriff who hates her coffee but may be keen on her.

That her boarder and hired hand Yasuhiro (Arthur Acuna) falls in love with her is one of the play's unintentional mysteries. An immigrant from Japan, Yasuhiro has a story that could provide a much-needed depth to the play. But his motivations are only touched upon, and his character, while touchingly wrought by Acuna, becomes just a symbol of American guilt and prejudice. Lilly realizes, much too late, that she has missed the transformative power of love.

Her fears have held her captive in her own little tower. In the long aftermath of 9-11 and its sequels of terrors and TSAs, we can relate. As each of the characters discovers, Franklin D. Roosevelt was right. Fear of fear is frightful.

But so is this play's hasty and trite resolution. The last scene shows a penitent, rather pitiful Lilly, who has missed the chance to love and to save others and herself. In the end, we see that Charles, the Sheriff, (a stoic Ted Koch) has missed the chance to become more than a friend to Lilly. Lieutenant Rando (a stilted Kevin Hoffmann) has missed the point of anything at all. And Christopher has learned, much too late, to make his apologies meaningful, that things are not always what they seem.

Despite the dreariness of San Diego's recently stormy weather, this play's serving of theatrical stew is not comfort food.

"Whisper House" plays on The Old Globe stage in San Diego's Balboa Park through Feb. 21. Performances: Tues-Weds at 7pm; Thurs-Sat at 8pm; Sun at 7pm. Matinees on Sat & Sun at 2 pm. Tickets are $36-89. Discounts for students, youth, seniors and groups. Reservations: at www.TheOldGlobe.org or 619-23-GLOBE.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.