The success of any story doesn’t come down, usually, to its genre trappings. Take Calamity West’s thrilling new play Hinter, wonderfully directed by Brad DeFabo Akin at Steep Theatre. The play’s ostensibly a whodunit murder mystery, with a little bit of supernatural horror sprinkled in. Set in a family farmhouse outside of Munich in 1922, the story features a bevy of corpses, an eccentric detective, and various secrets and scraps of small-town dirty laundry just waiting to be aired.
But it’s not these elements that make the play such a delight—even though West is able to mix and match them with quite rewarding results. No, the real art here is in how West uses the mystery as a kind of skeleton on top of which she creates a living, breathing flesh-and-blood creation.
However, it can’t be denied that West also has some tricks up her sleeve. Hinter’s first act mostly unfolds like a traditional murder mystery. There’s a family, the Grubers, who are discovered dead along with their new maid, Maria (Aurora Adachi-Winter). They’ve all been hacked to death with the family’s axe, which is still missing. Their bodies are discovered by their farmhand, Klara (Sigrid Sutter), and their neighbor, Frieda (Lauren Sivak).
This being far out in the country, an inspector has to be summoned from Munich. When Inspector Herzog (Peter Moore) arrives, he’s a bit daffy, but also quite foreboding. He questions the townspeople, including the family’s former maid (and Klara’s ex-lover), Elizabeth (Sasha Smith), the local postmaster (Alex Gillmor) and a PTSD-suffering suitor of Farmer Gruber’s daughter named Lorenz (Nate Whelden). The show’s unspectacular but thoroughly workmanlike design, with set by Lauren Nigri, lights by Pete Dully, costumes by Mieka van der Ploeg, and sound by Thomas Dixon, does a fine job of capturing the story’s isolated setting and dark, paranoiac mood.
As the inspector makes his rounds and the characters warily circle each other, the play unfolds mostly as expected. The only departures from traditional crime threads are the mentions of a local witch legend that haunts the nearby woods—oh, and signs of Elizabeth’s haunting that keep popping up. The aftershocks of World War I also reverberate throughout the play, from the shortage of both food and young men—a total of four characters are war widows—to the secret looks and knowing references shared between the men, allusions to a terror they all desperately want to forget.
But it’s in its second act that Hinter really turns expectations on its head. The clock turns back and we see the final day in the lives of the Gruber family. The patriarch, Andres (Jim Poole), is a right old bastard to a degree that should remain unspoiled. His wife Cazillia (Melissa Reimer) is a wonderful old woman whose canny sense of survival has inadvertently doomed her stoic daughter Viktoria (Eunice Woods) to a lifetime of abuse. The new maid, Maria, meanwhile, has a bright, standoffish demeanor that suggests maybe “being a maid” isn’t really her life’s calling.
It wouldn’t be kind to spoil how all the pieces come together, but it’s fair to say West goes out of her way to deny audiences an easy resolution. After all, that wouldn’t be very truthful would it? Bad things happen, and for reasons that are sometimes never discovered and almost never understood. A person’s strength to endure hardship can also become a millstone preventing their escape. Sometimes the war to end all wars just leads to a much bigger war and even greater atrocities. Maybe a witch really does live in those woods, and maybe, to paraphrase a line from the play, a man doesn’t need to be dead in order to haunt the women in his life.
At its heart, Hinter is a story of women under threat from men, and the fact of that looming violence is never placed out of sight. But West’s commitment to paradox, to complexity, bleeds throughout the play and into the way she draws her characters, all of whom (with the exception of Andres) are complex, feisty, irritable, kind, loving, and entirely incapable of being easily resolved. Between the characters and West’s somersaulting story structure, Hinter manages to be something that only the best mystery stories can achieve: It’s one you want to watch twice.
Steep Theatre. By Calamity West. Directed by Brad DeFabo Akin. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.