The best horror combines unlikely disaster—vampire attacks, a zombie apocalypse—with deep-set ordinary fears. WildClaw’s The Life of Death, adapted from a Clive Barker story, achieves two scary layers simultaneously, just in time for Halloween. In the world we know, young Londoner Elaine Rider (Casey Cunningham) is in a fugue state, grappling with the emptiness she feels after the triple whammy of sickness, hysterectomy and a breakup; she’s grieving so deeply that only wandering around a church demolition site relieves the nightmares and listless TV-watching. (On that TV: stern warnings to single women about an on-the-loose serial killer.) Outside said church, she talks to a cheerfully morbid stranger (Steve Herson), and that’s where the freaky part begins.
What happens next isn’t pretty. The terror builds subtly but steadily through director Carolyn Klein’s inspired arrangements of a nimble cast, augmented by less deft video exposition. Cunningham’s performance is extraordinary; she commands attention even when curled up in the fetal position. In Elaine, she’s created an eloquent fighter-philosopher whose woes become world-altering catastrophe. Herson, Michaela Petro (as Elaine’s complex friend Hermione) and Mallory Nees (as a featherbrained secretary) enrich and enliven each moment onstage. There are flaws in both plot—which muddles at a crucial climax—and minor performances, but The Life of Death deserves the dread and sweat of a serious audience.