There are stories we must approach carefully, as we might, unarmed, approach a wolf in a leg trap. Amy E. Witting’s wolf of a story, The House on the Hill, is such a tale. It is a story of the hate that dare not speak its name. It is a story of sin, and the vengeance which the victims visit upon themselves. It is, in the end, the story of blood reparations, in a way I dasn’t reveal.
It is a story of cousins: Frankie (Jessica Savage) and Alexandra (Joey Parsons). We see them first as adults, years after The Event, when the flames have turned to cinders or, in Alexandra’s case, to ashes. They have not seen each other in over a decade. Alexandra, fresh from meditating to a program on her laptop, is not eager to see Frankie, who has come straight from the funeral of their grandfather to Alexandra’s front door. But Frankie is there with her luggage and her baby and her baby’s crib and some cake, so Alexandra lets her in.
The conversation circles warily, like dancers on the edge of a volcanic crater. The health of Frankie’s mother. Alexandra’s work as a Professor of History at a nearby community college. The professional career of Frankie’s husband, Hank (a partner at Arnold and Porter in DC). Alexandra’s horse, Bruce. Her beautiful, enormous house, and the vast acreage upon which it sits. Throughout, Alexandra seems exhausted, as though she had just woke from a bad dream. And Frankie, high-strung throughout, grows tauter and tauter, as though her nerves were being pulled like taffy.
And then they reappear, as young women, as seventeen-year-olds, before The Event. Frankie (Ruby Rakos) is a serious young woman whose vagabond father has returned after a twelve-year absence; an only child whose household is graced with a malevolent cat. She is in the first stages of her relationship with the man she will eventually marry. And Alexandra, then called Alex (Sam Morales) is part of a large, loving family. Frankie and Alex are more than cousins; they are BFFs, and they will tell each other anything. Except this one thing.
The House on the Hill
closes July 29, 2018
Details and tickets
And that, brothers and sisters, is all I can tell you about the story, except that it is as tightly constructed as a Chinese Box Puzzle, or as Rubik’s Cube. There will be things in this play that seem insignificant until later, when you will be reminded of them with quantum force. (A small example: Alexandra scoffs at the intellectual quality of community college students; much later, Frankie reveals that she went to community college.) The great pleasure of this play is not simply witnessing the astonishing developments, but in connecting them with previous developments. The House on the Hill is a mystery and a revelation both.
It helps that there is an extraordinarily strong cast in service to the text. Joey Parsons has become my favorite CATF actor, and that’s saying a lot. Parsons not only appears to have a limitless range, but an enormous ability to mine the nuances of each emotion. The rage she displayed as the wronged wife in Michael Weller’s Fifty Words nine years ago was rich and full; a plump rage, coming from someone certain of her entitlement. The rage she displays here — and she does display rage, believe me — comes from a bottomless emptiness, an emotional black hole. When she was enraged in Fifty Words you feared for her husband; when she is enraged in this play, you fear for yourself.
But I think it’s time to recognize Jessica Savage as well. She has played four entirely different characters over two years at the CATF: a wisecracking, flawed, appealing young mother in Byhalia, Mississippi and a defiant young Amish woman in Everything is Wonderful last year, and a fierce warrior defending her family in Thirst this year as well as this role, and done each character superbly. Here, we get to witness Frankie’s deterioration minute-by-minute, and it is like watching a house fire in slow motion. Frankie is eager to shed her defenses and get to the heart of the matter, but when she does she doesn’t get what she expected, or hoped for. Savage makes every bit of that clear. Her exchanges with Parsons are so natural it appears that their fates are preordained (as, of course, they are).
Director Ed Herendeen gets fine performances from Ruby Rakos and Sam Morales as the younger versions of the two women as well. (They even look like they could be younger versions of Savage and Parsons). Together, they radiate a sort of conspiratory joy which gives savor to their seemingly quotidian lives — Frankie’s suitor being a little too aggressive in the kissing department; Alex smoking dope with the local pothead. You can see young Frankie in the adult version; one of the story’s great tragedies is that the cocksure, mischievous Alex has disappeared by the time she comes to be Alexandra.
Herendeen, who founded and has for twenty-seven years been the Artistic Director of the CATF, has here done some of the best work I have ever seen him do. Given a superb script and a first-rate company of actors, Herendeen has created what is truly a masterpiece, with characters who are so compelling that they will occupy your mind not only with what they did on the stage but what they might have done in the portions of the story not revealed to us. There is not a false note, not a word or gesture out of context, and not an element of our experience — from Jesse Driekosen’s spot-on set to the clunky high heels which costume designer Trevor Bowen found for adult Frankie — which does not contribute to the story. It’s a difficult choice, but in an unusually good year for the CATF, I would say that if you can see only one play, make it The House on the Hill.
The House on the Hill, by Amy E. Witting, directed by Ed Herendeen . Featuring Joey Parsons, Sam Morales, Ruby Rakos and Jessica Savage . Scenic design by Jesse Dreikosen . Costume design by Trevor Bowen . Lighting design by Tony Galaska . Sound design by Elisheba Ittoop . Kassidy Coburn is the technical director . Lori M. Doyle, assisted by Cate Agis, is the stage manager . Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.