Washington Stage Guild’s Summerland serves up spirits from the next world but fails to make much of the play’s unusual post-Civil War subject and its fascinating antagonist.
Shortly after the Civil War, America saw a revitalization of Spiritualism, the loosely defined belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted by the living, especially with the help of a well-paid mediums with some tricks up their sleeves. After the Civil War, there were plenty of grieving families and widows and plenty of mediums happy to help for a price.
Among those charlatans was William H. Mumler. His particular brand of Spiritualism was spirit photography, photographing people and doctoring the portraits to include the spirit of a dead loved one standing beside them. Mumler became so famous that even former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln sat for him (and indeed walked away with a portrait of herself and her recently deceased husband). That fame got him the attention of showman P.T. Barnum, who tried to debunk spirit photography at a trial which brought Mumler to financial ruin despite the finding of not guilty.
closes October 21, 2018
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Summerland retells the story of Mumler’s 1869 trial. Police investigator Chief Marshal Joseph Tooker (Steven Carpenter) sets a trap for Mumler (Yury Lomakin) under a false name, trying to catch Mumler in the act of swindling him. From there, playwright Arlitia Jones breaks hard from history, filling in gaps and tweaking a few facts.
It’s a truly unique setting, but both acts have different issues that bog down the show. Act 1 shows Tooker and Mumler’s fight with very little changing by way of stakes or position, but director Kasi Campbell makes a few smart choices. Lomakin’s Mumler is perfectly balanced between an offended true-believer, an offputting creep, and an endearingly sassy businessman. It would be too easy for Mumler to be pegged from the start as the villain, but Campbell keeps him just funny enough and just wounded enough to keep the audience uncertain.
Award winning sound designer Matthew J. Nielson’s sound design is, this time, filled with clichés as we wait for something to give. Imagine that strange metallic clamor as a vulnerable young woman looks around a dark house, only to miss seeing a shadow move behind her. That’s the waterphone effect. It would be forgivable as a convenient shorthand for “this is spooky,” until Nielson twice uses another horror movie cliché, the sound of a little girl slowly singing “Ring around the Rosie.” The only child mentioned in Summerland is a boy.
Act 2 introduces Mrs. Mumler (Rachel Felstein). But whereas Mr. Mumler is carefully written and directed to be just likeable enough to introduce doubt, Campbell’s direction damns Mrs. Mumler immediately and blatantly. Felstein radiates the malevolence of a ruthless black widow with every glance. It is a very strong performance, but so quickly pinning these two men’s misfortunes on one evil-yet-sexy woman eliminates what little uncertainty fueled Act 1. Jones’s script is less to blame here; one could see a version of Mrs. Mumler who is less certain, who is only forced to villainy out of circumstance, but no one in this audience will.
But a typical horror movie soundtrack and a femme fatale villain are clichés because they work. Summerland does deliver some real fear, especially in a few key moments when Pancharee Sangkaeo’s set pulls off some slick special effects. If you are hunting for some haunting theatre this Halloween season, Summerland is the show for you.
Summerland. Written by Arlitia Jones. Directed by Kasi Campbell. Performed by Steven Carpenter, Yury Lomakin, and Rachel Felstein. Set design by Pancharee Sangkaeo. Costume design by Sígrid Jóhannesdóttir. Lighting design by Marianne Meadows. Sound design and composing by Matthew J. Nielson. Stage managed by Arthur Nordlie. Produced by Washington Stage Guild. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.