When one seeks out the services of a medium to communicate with dearly departed friends or family members, there’s a good chance the only thing the “psychic” is really channeling is easy cash. Even so, for the survivors, the experience may be less about making actual contact with the dead and more about coming to grips with a devastating reality and desperately trying to make peace with it. That’s certainly the case with Joe Lukin (Norm Woodel) in Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia.
A dozen years after his musical prodigy daughter Julia committed suicide as a teen, Joe invites her old boyfriend Andy (J.P. Pierson) and a psychic (Ted Hoerl) to Julia’s former apartment (which he’s now converted into a pristine house museum in her honor) to find some answers to questions that have long been, quite literally, haunting him. Playwright Ayckbourn and director Kevin Hagan don’t shy away from the production’s supernatural elements, but instead smartly craft them into a tense backdrop for the far more thrilling emotional unpacking of the show’s three living characters.
In a play so heavy with death, Woodel is pulsing with honest, tortured life. His artful, understated performance sparks, boils over, then wanes again as his character is still coping with the loss of a child he never really understood. By comparison, Pierson and Hoerl’s sometimes heavier-handed interpretations shine dimmer, though their performances have their strong points too. The unevenness and some unanswered questions drain a bit of the show’s concentrated, intimate energy, but not much.
Of course, it’s through all three actors’ performances that the production’s title character comes to layered life after death in all her eccentricities and sadness. I’ll leave it to you, the potential theatergoer, to find out for yourself whether Julia indeed makes an appearance on stage. But ghost-sighting or not, Eclipse has succeeded here in sending a chill of connection and empathy up its audience members’ collective spine.