Parapsychology, that investigation of mental phenomena beyond the reach of psychology, is a perfect subject for the theater, where audience members have been trained to suspend disbelief.
Lucas Hnath, one of the most adventurous American playwrights working today, tests hidden waters in his hauntingly gripping play “The Thin Place,” now receiving its California premiere in an Echo Theater Co. production sensationally staged at Atwater Village Theatre.
Hilda (an enigmatically vivacious Caitlin Zambito) has been dabbling in ESP since she was a child. Speaking directly to the audience, she recalls the mind-reading games her grandmother played with her long ago in hopes of establishing a form of communication that could continue after her death.
Hilda’s home life is troubled. Her mother does not like the “demonic activity” that Hilda’s grandmother encourages and eventually throws her out of the house. Unsettled, Hilda’s mother fears that she herself is possessed. One day, when Hilda is an adult, she just disappears.
Not long after her mother goes missing, Hilda visits Linda, a medium who plies her trade in the living rooms of wealthy wine drinkers. Played to turbulent perfection by Janet Greaves, this spiritualist knows how to put on a show. She recounts information about Hilda that she doesn’t need to know.
How does she do it? She listens, tuning into her internal intercom, where the spirits of the dead line up to speak. Hilda’s grandmother seems delighted at the chance to message her granddaughter once again, even if it’s a quaint third party.
Hilda and Linda become close friends, the exact dimensions of which remain opaque. Suspecting that she too may have the gift, Hilda wants to learn the ins and outs of the psychic profession. But Linda doesn’t like to talk about business.
Temperamentally, the two women couldn’t be more different. Linda, who is British and middle-aged, is bossy, loud and cunning. Hilda is watchful, girlish, and a bit fey. If she were to judge by appearances, Hilda from another world might seem to be the one with access to the “thin place”, which she describes as that border “where the line between this world and some other world is very thin”.
Linda’s bravado occasionally suggests a tacky fortune teller background. But she may be the most honest character in the play. She disparages her “magic of her” to Hilda, explaining that what she does is a trick not unlike psychotherapy, except that what she offers “really works”. She’s in the business of comforting and assuaging guilt, but she wishes Hilda would stop sticking her nose behind the curtain.
Hnath, the moody auteur of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and “Dana H.”, feels right at home in the supernatural genre, which is becoming increasingly popular on stage, as evidenced last fall.” 2:22 — A Ghost Story” at the Ahmanson Theater and “The Brothers Paranormal” at East West Players. His approach is philosophical: he questions the line between truth and fabrication.
Is Linda a master manipulator, or could she have some genuine hidden talents that she doesn’t fully understand? Does Hilda’s awareness of Linda as a con artist only intensify her belief in her own access to her own mysterious realms?
Effortlessly moving between storytelling and dramatization, “The Thin Place” blends the mundane with the bizarre to elegant effect. Capable of reshaping any dramatic form in his own image, Hnath never fails to find unexpected narrative angles to turn the familiar into the unfamiliar and vice versa.
As Linda listens to the voices on the other end, Hnath’s unerring hearing forces us to lean forward and catch what her characters are saying. The silence in the theater becomes overwhelming, a sign that the actors are making contact not only with the material and with each other, but also with the audience.
Directed by Abigail Deser, the production (beautifully minimalist in design) works to get the audience in the right frame of mind even before the play begins. Theatergoers are asked upon entering to write the name of someone they have lost on a piece of paper, which will then be collected and perhaps used in the show.
Hilda de Zambito highlights audience members for interaction. She notes similarities between certain assistants and her grandmother. When Hilda talks about her past, she does it almost in a whisper, as if she shares creepy secrets that she knows will resonate with ours.
The play expands on its middle section, making way for two additional characters: Sylvia (Corbett Tuck), Linda’s wealthy patron, and Jerry (Justin Huen), Linda’s American cousin. The occasion is a party to celebrate Linda’s visa, which Jerry helped her obtain by getting her a job as a political consultant. (Linda’s ability to read a room full of strangers turns out to be an invaluable campaign skill.)
The boisterous chat at the party doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, but Hnath catches the great personalities in the room. Hnath has Linda and Sylvia arguing fiercely one minute, then acting like best friends the next. It is a perfect representation of a relationship colored by money and psychological dependence.
The ending takes a bizarre turn as Hilda bravely ventures into the thin place. The conclusion is not entirely satisfactory, but perhaps because the play cannot remove the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds.
The wonder of the acting (all four actors are eccentrically alive) makes up for the thinness of this enticing drama. Hnath creates thematic intrigue, but his plot doesn’t support the ambiguity of the story as effectively as, for example, Henry James’s novel “Another Turn of the Screw,” the high point of literary horror, manages to shore up psychology in parapsychology.
“The Thin Place” has vivid characters, a sleek minimalist feel, and enough clever substance to make you wish it had a little more flair.
‘The Thin Place’
Where: Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA
When: 8 pm Friday, Saturday, Monday, 4 pm Sunday. Ends April 24
Tickets: $34; pay what you want on mondays
Contact: (310) 307-3753 or www.echotheatercompany.com
Execution time: 1 hour 30 minutes