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“House Spirits” is a ghost story about grief at Theater Wit

Playwright Mia McCullough’s dark, witty new play, “Spirits of the House,” is a ghost story through and through, but the mental health struggles, addiction and grief that haunt its characters are as frightening as the mysterious voices and doors that refuse to stay. close. Eileen Tull directs a fantastic cast who pull off the humour, pain, familial dysfunction and bizarre plot twists equally well in its world premiere at Theater Wit.

Set within a round-trip of New York City, the play follows a wealthy family, including Philip (Doug MacKechnie), a powerful couple who has recently enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous after being arrested for drunken driving, and Evelyn (Jennifer Jelsema), a successful woman. It’s about family. manager in the entertainment industry. Their recent marriages involve the misfit of Philip’s 17-year-old son, Erik (Nathan Hile), who fears he will inherit his late mother’s schizophrenia, and Evelyn’s daughter, Rox (Téa Baum), a sorority member whose upbeat talk of the Valleys hides some serious problems. gave way to his half-siblings. facing in college. In a few scenes, we also meet Rox’s father, Leo (Joe Zarrow), who has recently been released from prison.

But there is another person in the house that none of them can see: Philip’s first wife, Clara (Ilyssa Fradin), who has never left the house since her suicide 13 years ago. The only person aware of his existence is Angela (Cindy Gold), the stern but warm-hearted house manager who helps raise Erik. Clara spends her days knitting and watching the family, talking to them but unheard, and above all longing to hold her son in her arms again. At first, he seems like a mischievous yet mischievous ghost, but his dark side gradually emerges as we learn more about his tragic death and his intentions for the future.

Early in the game, as the family gathers to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas together, they are joined by another ghostly figure: a life-size, sentient rag doll named Julia (voiced by Suzanne Petri), a relic from escaping the Holocaust with Rox’s paternal grandmother. Grandmother. Possessor of secrets both literal and figurative, Julia has a gap between her legs that aims to smuggle the family’s valuables out of Nazi Germany. This bit of anatomical accuracy leads to moments of twisted humor and pathos as various characters interact with him.

Manuel Ortiz’s set design is a striking representation of the decay eating away at this family. A large, immaculate kitchen in cornflower blue and white dominates the space, but there is a small pantry tucked into the corner that Clara considers her haven. A large hole in the wall reveals that its interior is still covered in drawings Erik made as a child, and the torn edges of the drywall are covered in sickly brown stains. It’s no wonder the house hasn’t attracted any attention since Philip and Evelyn put it on the market; Although the musty wall was merely a visual metaphor intended for the eyes of onlookers, rumors of the property’s dark past spread to potential buyers.

McCullough has quite a talent for writing dialogue; rich in evocative detail and full of meaning that still emerges for me hours later. Plus, their writing is downright funny — mostly when the characters aren’t trying to make a joke — and the cast nails their comedic timing well.

On a more serious note, McCullough writes sensitively and movingly about the traumas experienced by many generations of this family. Philip’s alcoholism, fueled by his grief for Clara, sends him on a rollercoaster that hits rock bottom on Christmas Day. As Clara witnesses his deterioration, she realizes that she was mistaken in thinking that his death would be a relief for her husband; This is an insidious lie that mental illness whispers into so many ears.

Erik’s character arc raises difficult questions about how society treats misfit young men and whether the stigma of mental illness may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For most of her life, everyone expected her to develop symptoms similar to her mother’s. When Rox calls him a “Columbine” type and Erik confesses an interest in firearms, he is reminded of the house manager’s pre-show warning about fake gunshots. And yes, there is a gun, but things don’t turn out as expected.

“House Spirits” is the second new Chicago play in as many years to use a ghost story as a vehicle to explore grief. During the 2022 Destinos Festival, Teatro Vista premiered Paloma Nozicka’s excellent “Just Letting the Light In,” a psychological thriller about maternal guilt and the loss of a child. In the same vein but with its own twist, McCullough’s spooky comedy examines the real traumas and fears that haunt many families, whether there’s a ghost in their pantry or not.

Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.

Review: “House Spirits” (3.5 stars)

When: Until November 11

Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes

Tickets: $18-$55 at 773-975-8150 and theaterwit.org

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