REVIEW: Summerland

There’s a dazzling moment at the end of Act One of SUMMERLAND that is a truly frightening sensory experience like none other I’ve had in live theatre.  Director Michael Evan Haney and his team uses multiple effects with outstanding results.  (The blocking is tremendous, too – not easy to do on a three-sided stage like this one.). For that climactic moment alone, this play is worth a look.  But the overall examination of the themes of death, loss, and grief makes this one a big winner.

Michael Rothhaar is “Mr. Mumler,” a photographer who has a knack for capturing images of both the living and the dead.  “Joseph Tooker” (Billy Finn) is a client – or is he?  It seems there are suspicious about the trickery Mumler employs to seperate well-meaning customers from their $10 portrait fees.  Tooker is there to find out how it works  and potentially to shut the operation down.  We hear much talk of “Mrs. Mumler” (Whitney Maris Brown) before she appears.  When she does, it’s quite an entrance.

To tell you much more would rob you of the surprises that unfold in this two-hour drama.  And the are plenty.  Set against the backdrop of post-Civil War America, this period piece stays true to the era while also being timeless in its relevance.  There is much talk of “Summerland,” the place Mumler believes people go when they die.  They visit his studio whenever he uses his camera; he is overwhelmed by their presence, especially that of a late family member.  Rothhaar has great presence and his snarky one-liners generated lots of laughs lightening the overall somber overtones.

But Tooker remains skeptical.  Billy Finn’s incredulous attitude about the things he’s seen and experience is apparent, but he gives the character a subtle sense of wonder, too.  It’s a deep performance and in the intimate Shelterhouse, you can see all the feelings in his eyes even when the military man won’t allow himself to show them.

Finally, there’s the seductive, frightening, intimidating, and mesmerizing Whitney Maris Brown’s take on Mrs. Mumler.  She’s got secret after secret and is one of the most interesting characters – and actresses – we’ve seen on a Playhouse stage this season.  Her beauty belies her danger and the charisma of the actress draws us in even when we feel like we should run far away.  It’s a perfect portrayal, really.

The play itself isn’t perfect, though it’s pretty darn good.  There’s enough humor mixed in to the mystery and the drama to make the run time fly by up until the very end when the epilogue seemed to drag on for a few moments longer than necessary.  Yet, even in those closing moments there’s a sense that playwright Arlita Jones knows precisely what she’s doing.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this production is the incredible set design by Paul Shortt, who uses every inch of available space (and ceiling) to give us a spooky sense of setting.  Kirk Bookman’s lighting design accentuates and punches the important moments while Matthew M. Nieleson’s sound design might be the most remarkable use of sound effects I’ve experienced in the theatre.

This is a world premiere; for all artistic directors looking for their next great fall “Halloween” show, this one is a sure-fire hit.  It’d be hard to imagine a better produced version than this, though.  Kudos.

SUMMERLAND runs through March 5th at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.  Click here for more information.