When Hilda (Phoebe Parker) was a child, we learn early in Lucas Hnath’s drama “The Thin Place,” she played a special game with her grandmother. Gran would write a word on a card without showing it to her, and then “send” the word for Hilda to “hear.”
Now, years after her grandmother has passed away, Hilda explains how the game “opened a door” in her to another realm, one with different rules of life and death, hearing and listening — “a thin place,” she calls it.
After her mother disappears, Hilda longs to learn more about this place, and she finds herself entering the acquaintance and social circle of a psychic named Linda (Maureen Butler). Over the course of their conversations, storytelling and arguments, “The Thin Place” deftly circles an array of ideas about belief.
Onstage now at The Hill Arts (formerly the St. Lawrence), under the direction of Tess Van Horn and Lauren Stockless, “The Thin Place” is a thoughtful, often quietly bracing production that opens the 2023 Portland Theater Festival. Last Thursday’s open dress of the show left me tingling with the fluid nature of the uncanny.
With her monologue framing the play as a story being recounted, Hilda becomes our guide — our own medium, in a sense — for her childhood experiences, as well as those with Linda and her wealthy benefactor-friends, Sylvia and Jerry (Courtney Cook and Michael Grew). Their conversations ground the play’s exploration of belief and connection, as the characters discuss matters of narrative, illusion, truth, and what we want to see.
Parker is a lovely, slightly enigmatic and richly nuanced presence as Hilda. Her opening monologue is a tour de force of subtle intricacy as she relates “hearing” her grandmother’s words, explaining and considering her experience with a range of nostalgia, pleasure, grief, incredulity, uncertainty and wonder. In the softness and vulnerability of her body and voice, Parker brings Hilda a fine complexity and a sometimes startling capacity for openness.
In scenes with the other characters, Hilda is most often quiet, a listener. We can see her taking everything in with an almost preternatural receptivity as her self-effacing manner separates her from the dramatic gestures and sureties of the others. Butler’s Linda, in her flowing clothes and big necklaces, is formidable, wry, showy, and constantly calculating, as she runs a séance but later downplays her work to Hilda. “You do know that what I do is a trick,” Linda admonishes, adding that “It’s really not that different from psychotherapy. Except that what I do works.”
A progressively inebriated party scene involving all four characters (with Cook and Grew brimming their characters in elite self-regard and entitlement) allows Hnath’s script to meander interestingly along various thematic “thin lines” — between political people skills and manipulation, fiction and lie, charity and selfish self-fulfillment. The blocking onstage keeps all four actors in interestingly contained, almost claustrophobic tableaux among just a few chairs in Sylvia’s presumably spacious house, which brings their epistemological crises into close quarters.
Among the grandstanding Sylvia and Jerry, and the watchful, performative Linda, Hilda’s affect makes her at times nearly invisible. But when she finally speaks up, she opens up something vast and impossible to know. Fine atmospheric stagecraft and other illusions heighten the themes and strangeness in quietly metatheatrical ways, and over the course of the play we might find ourselves stunned in our wonder at story itself – perhaps the most uncanny force of all.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Elsewhere on the boards
E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” has been and continues to be a classic of so many children’s summers — certainly of my own. And an adaptation onstage now, at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, features a fresh take and a marvelous team of local performers.
Longtime CMTM director Reba Askari has directed the play four times over the years, and is inspired by a minimalist, “Our Town” aesthetic for this six-person show. Expect physical performance and circus skills in spades with the terrific mover Jared Mongeau in a variety of human and farm-animal roles, and with Heather Irish slinking around as Templeton the rat. Onstage through July 30. | www.kitetails.org/
And grab your picnic, blanket, and summer beverages for the yearly ritual of Shakespeare in Deering Oaks Park, courtesy of Fenix Theater Company. This year, the Bard comes to us in lightning-round form in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged] [revised] [again].” Hollie Prior directs this careening tour through Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre, featuring performers Noli French, Chantal King and Lauren Stockless. In the park through July 30. | www.fenixtheatre.com