'The Thin Place' at Dobama Theatre is an Occasionally Gripping Venture Into the Gap Between the Living and Dead

The elaborate ghost story could use more heft

click to enlarge 'The Thin Place' at Dobama Theatre is an Occasionally Gripping Venture Into the Gap Between the Living and Dead
Steven Wagner Photography

If you've ever wondered about the finality of death and whether you might be able to communicate with the dearly departed, congratulations! You are officially a member of the human race. That ultimate mystery has enticed everyone from credible researchers to magicians such as the great Houdini, who was sure he would be able to chat with the living after his death. (Spoiler alert: He couldn't.)

In the gripping but ultimately evanescent "The Thin Place" by Lucas Hnath, now at Dobama Theatre, the title refers to the imperceptible zone separating the living and the dead. That's the zone we all visit after the recent death of a loved one when we reach for the phone to share a funny story with the departed. Before we realize that's impossible, we exist for a few nanoseconds in... the thin place.

In this play, Hilda (Kelly Strand), addresses the audience directly, telling us about her grandma and how she played a game in which Hilda had to guess the word on a piece of paper. Per grandma's instructions, Hilda had to "hear" that word by listening to a spirit voice "located above and just behind" her eyes. Young Hilda was entranced by that game and now, as a young woman, she seeks out a psychic to try and reconnect with her beloved but departed grandma.

The mind-reader she finds is Linda (Derdriu Ring), an expat from England who has a no-nonsense demeanor and frankly admits that her gig is based on a gimmick. As anyone knows who's watched any movie or documentary about mind-reader scams, the trick is to look and listen carefully to the mark, use the information they provide, and then feed it back to them.

The trance she begins to weave around Hilda is interrupted when two of Linda's pals, Jerry (James Rankin) and Sylvia (Anjanette Hall) arrive with wine and snacks. From there, Hnath's story branches out in unexpected ways.

The greatest achievement of Hnath's script and this 100-minute production under the direction of Colin Anderson is to make the audience do what Linda does, watch and listen with intensity. And we do, through the chatty bits where they share thoughts about American's obsession with Hitler and a possible new gig for Linda helping political candidates use her mind-reading tricks. The climactic moment arrives when previously shy Hilda steps up and shares the last time she saw her mother alive.

The Thin Place is markedly less successful when Hnath leaves a passel of loose ends involving the off-again/on-again relationship between Linda and her financial benefactor Sylvia. Then there are more limp threads of around Linda's banishment from England and any backstory of Jerry's curious relationship with Linda. These, um, dead ends leave the audience in the thin place between the scenes we're watching and the ones we wish we were watching.

Indeed, the production exists in its own thin place, somewhere between a real theatrical set and a backstage area. All the action takes place around two stuffed chairs, a side table and a hassock, while the rest of the copious surrounding space is black and empty save for some old lamps and other objects wrapped in white and stored haphazardly. There's an unsettling vibe afoot, so hats off to scenic and lighting designer Jeremy Paul, along with sound designer Richard Ingraham and technical director Marcus Dana.

Through if all, the cast is exemplary. Ring has gobs of fun as Linda, poking holes in Linda's expectations but never extinguishing the young woman's hope, even as Linda's past is revealed. Rankin and Hall turn in crisp portrayals as useful foils for Linda and Hilda, even though their story lines eventually vanish into the blackness that surrounds them.

As the gentle but ever-curious Hilda, Strand is approachable and credible, both when she's interacting with other characters and when she emerges through the fourth wall to chat with the audience. Aside from some overcooked facial expressions, Strand handles this less showy task with skill.

Turns out, "The Thin Place" is an elaborate ghost story, one that might succeed in making you gasp out loud—and that will be plenty satisfying for some. But there are many unexplored ideas and unresolved relationships left unattended—so many that it makes this theatrical experience a lot thinner, bordering on anorexic.

The Thin Place
Through October 30 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.