The Spirit Play at Strange Tree Group | Theater review

Like its charlatan characters, Emily Schwartz’s look at the spiritualist movement of the 19th century gets the style just right but misses substance.
Photograph: Tyler Core The Spirit Play at Strange Tree Group
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For the follow-up to their Jeff Award–winning The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, playwright Emily Schwartz and director Jimmy McDermott take as their inspiration the 19th-century fascination with spiritualism. Attempts to communicate with the dead via séances and mediums became faddish parlor entertainment among the middle and upper classes; though some practitioners may have been true believers, the movement was rife with fraud and chicanery.

Schwartz’s scenario, set in Chicago, has it both ways: Confirmed spiritualist Hubert Redspell (Scott Cupper) hosts a session with M. Gerard (Matt Holzfeind) and his medium sister, Jane (Kate Nawrocki). But Jane, we learn after the session’s complete and the room cleared, isn’t Gerard’s sister but his wife, and the pair are aided in their deception by her sister, Ruth (Delia Baseman), who resents having to stay hidden. Jane, it becomes clear, has some small but real connection to the world beyond ours.

Schwartz and McDermott entertainingly demonstrate the methods of trickery employed by fakesters like Gerard. In the opening scene’s séance, Holzfeind romps merrily around the darkened room, fooling participants into feeling brushes with phantoms; his “bible” of detailed personal information on his marks becomes a key plot device.

But Schwartz gives short shrift to the play’s relationships. The dynamic among Gerard, Jane and Ruth seems forced, while the connection between Jane and Mr. Tennant (Bob Kruse), who finds in her a conduit to his recently deceased wife, goes underexplored. Most other characters feel extraneous, and the tone ping-pongs between goofy comedy and menace until the play’s abrupt end, with too little resolved.

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