Remember “Long Distance Call,” that episode of the incredible and timeless TV classic The Twilight Zone, where Billy Mumy’s grandmother gives him a play telephone and then she dies the next day? Whenever he picks up the phone, his grandma is talking to him. The Thin Place, the new production at Road Less Traveled Theater, is as riveting and haunting as that 1961 episode. Maybe even moreso. Yes, I checked the backseat of my car before I got in after the show.
This is the WNY premiere of another work by lucas hnath and it breaks the fourth wall (while storytelling about the fifth dimension) in a way that is his signature style. As the story begins, house lights are up for several minutes as Hilda (Renee Landrigan) holds a cup of tea and starts talking about her grandma and their special relationship. Grandma was encouraging Hilda to see with her third eye, the one that is just behind her ‘seeing’ eyes, where communication is more felt than heard. Hilda’s mom called this satanic and demonic and banned Grandma from her home. Yet the lessons resonated with Hilda who would often sit quietly by candlelight to attempt to communicate with her grandma after she passed.
Hilda is an adult now, no longer living with her mom, when she meets Linda (Margaret Massman), a spiritual medium and she is captivated. They become friends and she soon meets others in Linda’s earthly circle, Sylvia (Kristen Tripp Kelley) and Jerry (David Mitchell), well-heeled jetsetters who have a different perspective on Linda’s ‘gift.’
Wow. Sounds like a simple parlor drama/relationship story, right? Nope. There are layers of story in here and piles of theatre magic wonderfully executed by the production team. Dyan Burlingame’s set is deceptively simple and Diane Almeter Jones’ props are the same. John Rickus does some creepy-good things with lighting; delaying and slowing the dimming of the house lights, cutting the stage lights (the theatre companion and I disagree on the critical duration of this black out. He says no more than :45 and I maintain it was a good 2:00 that I clutched his hand in terror). Sound Designer Katie Menke had some off-stage shattering and clattering to create, too.
Landrigan as Hilda ran the full emotional gamut, from almost shy to very knowing. This was an elegant performance. Massman was clever, convincing, mystical as the medium who was….or wasn’t. Tripp Kelley was easy to detest as the ‘friend’ with a jealous streak, and Mitchell brought a keen balance to this trio of women in complicated places.
All this was brought together by director Scott Behrend who let the strength of this content guide the simplicity of its presentation. This production is flawless, stop to finish, with its exquisite combination of story, actors, and production.
What I loved most about reading the playbill (yes, an actual book on paper with ink already) was reading about RLTP’s Bridge Program which has a college and high school student engaged in the production alongside working professionals. Best wishes to Brenda Bridges and Liam Rio respectively as you learn from the best in the business. I also loved the insert that had the story behind the story.
The Thin Place runs a gripping 90-minutes, with no intermission which would have broken the suspense and taken you away from a place beyond here and the beyond. Find tickets and other info at www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.