Jennifer Rumberger’s supernatural chiller about a Floridian family will leave you sweating hot and cold.
The most effective horror stories are those that are about more than just monsters. The Shining, for instance, is as much about the terrors of alcoholism and parenthood as it is about ghosts. And while the best horror stories still have plenty of moments that make you scream and squirm, it’s that cold chill down your spine—the one that tells you “this is something real, something that’s actually happening”—that will stay with you long after the shock has faded.
Jennifer Rumberger’s new play Night in Alachua County is one of these stories, and it’s received a wonderful premiere production from WildClaw Theatre and director Christopher M. Walsh. The play unfurls across the sugar-cane backwoods of Florida, a place dotted with trailer parks and Kmarts and Wednesday-night fight clubs. It concerns a mother, Crystal (Allison Cain in a tense, commanding performance), who stays up late into the night digging up her backyard and whispering incantations in the dark; at first glance she’s a fierce (if bitter) mama bear to her developmentally disabled daughter, Lily (beautifully played by Kathryn Acosta), but her close watch soon starts to feel like something more sinister. Maybe it has something to do with the ghostly man without eyes haunting Lily’s room.
On the eve of Lily’s 17th birthday, Crystal’s other daughter, Violet (Krista D’Agostino, just the right mix of tough and vulnerable), returns to the family’s mobile homestead. (The set by John Ross Wilson is swampy and decrepit and right on the money.) Violet’s much older than Lily, 17 years older to be exact, and she left home not long after Lily’s birth and the death of their dad. Crystal suspects that Violet has come to take Lily away from her, and she’s exactly right. Though there is a literal spirit in the mix here—a particularly nasty breed known as a “lemure”—the real ghost is the specter of the sexual and physical abuse that Violet and Lily suffered at the hands of their dad. Violet is haunted by it, while Crystal refuses to let it cloud the memory of her dear departed husband. “I saw the way you looked at him,” she says to Violet at one point, making it clear where her sympathies in the matter fall.
To reveal any more would rob the play of some of its best moments. (There’s something about slowly dawning realization, those moments when the strange goings-on all start to click, that makes them far more frightening than a thousand strobe-lit monsters.) Because for all of its thematic depth, Night in Alachua County is still a rousing good time. Though it could do with 10 minutes shaved off and a little less of the actual lemure (played by Kevin Alves) in its big finale, the play is tightly plotted, slowly turning up the heat till the action is at full boil. There’s a sequence lit almost entirely by flashlights that’s drawn out to an excruciatingly perfect length. (Walsh has staged the show in three-quarter thrust, which is pretty perfect for a horror show, as it allows you to see the folks across from you get scared silly.)
In addition to the main cast, Moira Begale and Mandy Walsh also give a fantastic pair of supporting performances as, respectively, Crystal’s sexed-up, Jesus-loving neighbor and Violet’s coarse but knowledgeable coworker at the local morgue. But the most unsung member of the cast is the story’s Floridian setting itself; it practically oozes a kind of boggy, humid dread. By the final blackout, you’re not sure if you’re sweating from heat or from fear.
WildClaw Theatre at the Den Theatre. By Jennifer Rumberger. Directed by Christopher M. Walsh. With Kathryn Acosta, Kevin Alves, Allison Cain, Krista D’Agostino, Moira Begale, Mandy Walsh. Running time: 1hr 40mins; no intermission.