“We Have Always Lived in the Castle”
by Irene Backalenick
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” a chilling tale of life in the old family mansion, is now enjoying its debut at Yale Rep’s University Theatre. This New England tale, based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, recalls other Gothic stories, true and otherwise. “Grey Gardens” comes to mind, as do O’Neill dramas. It all has to do with stern, repressive Puritan values which inevitably explode in manic behavior.
And now Todd Almond (music and lyrics) and Adam Bock (book and lyrics) have turned the Jackson novel into a musical. The Jackson story is strong, and there is no reason why a good murder story cannot morph into a good musical, “Sweeney Todd” being a case in point. But this time around, the music, lyrics and book do not measure up to the challenge, tending, as they do, to be repetitious and undistinguished. The chills and thrills, which should impact on viewers, never come through with the hope-for emotional clout.
Too bad, given this excellent story of the Blackwood family—with its three survivors--older sister Constance, younger sister Mary Katherine (Merricat), and Uncle Julian. It is some five years after the family murders, which resulted in Constance’s arrest, trial, and final acquittal. The three now live quietly on the family estate—quietly until cousin Charles, appears on the scene, with his own disruptive agenda—and everything explodes once again.
Jackson’s brilliant characterizations of the small-town residents (Bennington, Vermont) shine through. Each character is a compendium of good and evil, of weaknesses and strengths, which makes the fable highly believable. A particularly fascinating character is Merricat—an other-wordly creature who speaks in poetic imagery and has her own set of values. She sees through the facades of others, and has no hesitation in taking action when necessary. She is, somehow, beyond good and evil.
Also on the production’s plus side is Anne Kauffman’s skillful direction. She keeps the family ghosts moving through a background ballet, turning “Castle” into a dream (or perhaps a nightmare). The dream-like setting is enhanced by David Zinn’s set design and Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting.
Moreover, Kauffman directs a capable cast. In particular are outstanding performances by Jenn Gambatese as the gentle, pliable Constance (though she rarely gets to showcase her fine singing voice), and Sean Palmer, who plays the charming intruder with his eye on the main chance.
In all, this “Castle” matches Shirley Jackson’s own gallery of characters. Both prove to be, for better or worse, a mix of the good and the bad.
This review also appears in the Connecticut Post and nytheaterscene.com.