We Have Always Lived in the Castle -- The Sinister Side of Small Town
By Amy J. Barry
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” a modern gothic dark comedy murder mystery musical at Yale Rep, directed by Anne Kauffman, is most likely unlike anything you’ve ever experienced in the theater—except maybe Our Town with a creepy, surrealistic edge.
Commissioned by Yale Rep, the musical with book and lyrics by Adam Bock and music and lyrics by Todd Almond, is based on the novel by the same name by Shirley Jackson, whose fiction (The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House) depicts small town life, the gossips and the eccentrics, the “us” and “them,” and the dark, mean-spirited side of human nature that sometimes lurks just beneath the friendly surface in small communities.
Set in Bennington, Vermont in 1958, the action centers on Constance Blackwood (Jean Gambatese), who lives with her adoring younger sister Mary Catherine, referred to as Merricat (Andrea Socha), and odd uncle Julian (Bill Buell), in the Blackwood family’s imposing 19th-century home, once the dwelling of the wealthiest and most envied family in the little town.
We learn early on that the Blackwoods’ fall from grace was a result of the poisoning death of four close family members served a dessert of berries sprinkled with arsenic-sugar by Constance, who was acquitted of the crime six years prior.
Why did she do it if she did it? the villagers conjecture. Did she have a deep dark secret? Was she protecting someone? Or was she a homicidal maniac?
Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, boasts of being a survivor of the most sensational poisoning case in history. Buell brings perfect-pitched sprightly craziness to the role.
A skilled cook, Constance has become an agoraphobic homemaker, who dotes on her sister and Uncle. Gambatese captures the tragic spirit of her character. Constance is every woman. She is Rapunzel locked away in a turret, Donna Reed (who she dresses like) trapped in a kitchen, and even today’s well-off suburbanite imprisoned of her own free will in a McMansion.
Socha causes some shivers up the spine as the demonic “bad girl” younger sister, also the play’s narrator, who goes into town and passively-aggressively interacts with the townspeople dressed out of a Gothic tale, making us wonder if she’s actually alive or an apparition. But she never induces enough nail-biting fear in the viewer or goes far enough to the edge in her responses.
Complicit in keeping the murderer’s identity a secret, everything changes in the Blackwood sisters’ carefully orchestrated relationship when handsome cousin Charles (Sean Palmer) comes to visit and begins prying into the past, crossing too many boundaries, including falling in love with Constance. Palmer does a good job of keeping us on our toes, wondering if he is the earnest innocent he appears to be or has a hidden agenda.
A full-scale musical with 19 numbers in two acts, it’s a rather conventional score in an unorthodox play. Some songs are moving and clever— enchantingly executed by Gambatese, Socha, Palmer, and chorus—while others are sappy and flat. A terrific orchestra, conducted by Dan Lipton, isn’t in the usual pit but high up on the set’s second level—sometime hidden, other times revealed—consistent with the theme of the play. Still, these are not likely the kind of songs you’ll leave the theater humming— or even recall a week later.
The scenic design by David Zinn is nothing short of divine, enhanced by stunning lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Industrial, 50s-modern, and Gothic at the same time, it gives the feeling of a prison with transparent walls that keep Constance inside, even though she can leave at any time.
Among the production’s weaknesses is the fact that it’s a murder mystery, and yet the killer’s motivation remains vague.
Perhaps in turning Jackson’s dark, tension-filled world, in which characters live in isolation and fear, into a musical, the message is diluted and made more ambiguous.
The physicality of the production, the fine acting, the engaging eccentricity and originality helps offset what in the end may be too much of a mystery, even in a murder mystery.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle continues through Oct. 9 at Yale Rep’s University Theatre, 222 York Street. For tickets call 203-432-1234 or online www.yalerep.org <http://www.yalerep.org> .
This review appeared in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers Oct.6-7, 2010 and is online at Zip06.com.