The Ridgelea Reports on Theatre

"We have always lived in the Castle" at Yale Rep

Can you remember your first introduction to abnormal psychology, when you learned that you, too, were abnormal? And maybe for a few days (or weeks or months, or for some of us decades) you kept to yourself the secret that you live with compulsive behaviors or different personalities inside one body? Because, after all, you didn’t want the world outside to know that your world inside was a little bit crazy?

Those memories will likely pop up while you are being introduced to the mysterious Blackwoods, who live, or lived, in a very big house on the edge of Bennington, Vermont, a house described as a Victorian castle. Six years before the time of the play, there was a sensational trial which cast Constance Blackwood as the villain who murdered almost all of her family by adding arsenic to the sugar bowl. She was found not guilty, but what did that matter to the town gossips who still needed an answer to whodunnit? And so the remaining Blackwoods, Constance (Jenn Gambatese), Mary Katherine (Alexandra Socha), and Uncle Julian (Bill Buell) live a quiet life inside their castle and its garden, and don’t mix much in town. Mary Katherine, whose world is a very structured one, goes to town each Friday to buy eggs and other groceries, have a cup of coffee at the diner, and, well... confront the citizens who are consistently unfriendly to her family.

When a cousin, Charlie Blackwood (Sean Palmer), from a branch of the family that disassociated itself from the Bennington Blackwoods during the trial, arrives, whatever stability Mary Katherine and Constance have clung to is threatened. Charlie is trying to recreate his identity, after his father died. He is social, "up to date," and very drawn to Constance, with perhaps just a glance at her money, as well. He also considers that he is more sane than the rest of the living Blackwoods and that he should fill the role of manager of the family. But he fails to gauge the power of the emotional fortress within the castle, where change was long ago structured out of the blueprints and erased from the plan for living.

And that’s enough about the plot. You’ll follow it easily enough, in this exceptional musical production with book and lyrics by Adam Bock, and music and lyrics by Todd Almond. Or you may have read the novel by Shirley Jackson on which it’s based. Although it’s described as a musical play, the work is very much an opera, almost ready to take to Santa Fe or Glimmerglass or some other experimental venue. Director Anne Kauffman has done a magnificent job of staging the work, starting with assembling an amazing cast with excellent voices and other appropriate skills. She has allowed them to create innuendo, fear, and many complicated personalities, as well as shades of the past generations of Blackwoods, who are often in the background.
David Zinn’s set is superb. It features two and a half stories of a grand home, outlined in what appears as plaster lath, with a fancy staircase and a drop-in kitchen, or roll-in stores and gardens.

The lath takes on a life of its own during the intense middle scenes, so I’m praising the design but prefer to let you experience the collapsing change in it by your own presence in the theater.

Twenty musicians, many of them stringed, conducted by Dan Lipton, are placed behind the walls of the upper story, where they can be glimpsed rather than seen, but wow, can they be heard, in a challenging and beautiful score!

I hope that I’ve given you plenty of reasons to make the effort to see and hear this production. It brings with it the excitement of a company that has worked together to create a wonderful world premiere. Moments that illuminate it are the delicious sub-personalities of the characters in town, from menacing gossip on one hand to decent and even caring neighbors on the other, in the same characters. The company has put us all on stage, our good sides and bad ones wrapped together. A very skilled group of actors have accomplished this.

Mary Katherine and Constance are so symbiotic that they make one whole person together, and although they (alone) know the important secret the whole world wants to discover, they pledge to never ever speak of it again! Constance calls Mary Katherine by singing "Come to me," and she almost breaks out of their compact when she reaches out to Charlie, singing the same words, "Come to me, come to me...," over and over, and briefly falls in love with his persona. Charlie’s love may be a little more complex, but Palmer deftly shows how he too is reaching for a new beginning.

 "We have always lived in the Castle" is a compelling production, and I urge you to break other commitments in order to see it. It plays at Yale’s University Theater thru October 9. Tickets and information are available at

 Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre  September 24, 2010

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre

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