Parapsychology — that inquiry into mental phenomena beyond the reach of psychology — is a perfect subject for the theater, where audience members have been trained to suspend their disbelief.
Lucas Hnath, one of the most adventurous American playwrights working today, tests the occult waters in his eerily gripping play “The Thin Place,” now receiving its California premiere in a sensationally acted Echo Theatre Co. production at Atwater Village Theatre.
Hilda (an enigmatically sprightly Caitlin Zambito) has been dabbling with extra-sensory perception since she was a girl. Speaking directly to the audience, she recalls the mind-reading games her grandmother played with her long ago in the hope of establishing a form of communication that could continue after her death.
Hilda’s home life is troubled. Her mother doesn’t like the “demonic activity” Hilda’s grandmother encourages and eventually kicks her out of the house. Unstable, Hilda’s mother fears that she herself is possessed. One day, when Hilda is an adult, she just disappears.
Not long after her mother vanishes, Hilda visits Linda, a medium who plies her trade in the living rooms of affluent wine drinkers. This spiritualist, played to turbulent perfection by Janet Greaves, knows how to put on a show. She relates information about Hilda that she has no business knowing.
How does she do it? She listens, tuning into her inner intercom, where the spirits of the dead line up to speak. Hilda’s grandmother seems delighted for the chance to send messages once again to her granddaughter, even if it involves a colorful third party.
Hilda and Linda become intimate friends — the exact dimensions of which remain opaque. Suspecting that she may also have the gift, Hilda wants to learn the ins and outs of the psychic profession. But Linda doesn’t like talking shop.
Temperamentally, the two women couldn’t be more different. Linda, who’s British and middle-aged, is bossy, loud and streetwise. Hilda is watchful, girlish and a bit fey. If you were to judge by appearances, otherworldly Hilda might seem to be the one with access to “the thin place,” which she describes as that borderland “where the line between this world and some other world is very thin.”
Linda’s bravado occasionally suggests a tawdry fortune teller background. But she may be the most honest character in the play. She debunks her “magic” to Hilda, explaining that what she does is a trick not all that different from psychotherapy, except what she offers “actually works.” She’s in the business of giving reassurance and relieving guilt, but she wishes Hilda would stop poking her nose behind the curtain.
Hnath, the shapeshifting author of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and “Dana H.,” is right at home in the supernatural genre, which is becoming increasing popular in the theater, as evidenced last fall by “2:22 — A Ghost Story” at the Ahmanson Theatre and “The Brothers Paranormal” at East West Players. His approach is philosophical — questioning the line between truth and fabrication.
Is Linda a master manipulator or might she have some genuine occult talents that she doesn’t fully understand? Does Hilda’s awareness of Linda as a con artist only intensify her belief in her own access to mysterious realms?
Moving effortlessly between narration and dramatization, “The Thin Place” mixes the quotidian with the uncanny to stylish effect. Hnath, able to refashion any dramatic form in his own image, never fails to find unexpected storytelling angles to make the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa.
As Linda listens to voices on the other side, Hnath’s unerring ear compels us to lean forward and take in what his characters are saying. The silence in the theater becomes overwhelming — a sign that the actors are making contact not only with the material and each other but also with the audience.
Directed by Abigail Deser, the production (handsomely minimalist in its design) works to get the audience in the right frame of mind before the play even begins. Theatergoers are asked as they enter to write the name of someone they’ve lost on a piece of paper, which will then be collected and perhaps used in the show.
Zambito’s Hilda singles out members of the audience for interaction. She notices resemblances between certain attendees and her grandmother. When Hilda talks about her past, she does so almost in a whisper, as though sharing spooky secrets she knows will echo with our own.
The play expands in its middle section, ushering in two additional characters: Sylvia (Corbett Tuck), Linda’s wealthy patron, and Jerry (Justin Huen), Linda’s American cousin. The occasion is a party to celebrate Linda’s visa, which Jerry has helped her obtain by getting her a job as a political consultant. (Linda’s ability to read a room of strangers turns out to be an invaluable campaign skill.)
The boisterous party chat doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, but Hnath nabs the grandiose personalities in the room. Hnath has Linda and Sylvia arguing ferociously one minute, then acting like best friends the next. It’s a perfect depiction of a relationship that’s colored by money and psychological dependence.
The ending takes a strange turn as Hilda courageously ventures into the thin place. The conclusion isn’t wholly satisfying, but perhaps because the play can’t possibly remove the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds.
The wonder of the acting — all four performers are eccentrically alive — compensates for the thinness of this tantalizing drama. Hnath creates thematic intrigue, but his plot doesn’t back up the story’s ambiguity as effectively as, say, Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw,” the high-water mark of literary horror, manages to shore up the psychology in parapsychology.
“The Thin Place” has vivid characters, a dashing minimalist flair and just enough intelligent substance to make you wish it had a touch more.
‘The Thin Place’
Where: Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, Mondays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 24
Tickets: $34; pay-what-you-want Mondays
Contact: (310) 307-3753 or www.EchoTheaterCompany.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes