‘Whisper House’ needs to kick-up the volume.

Whisper House (Black button eyes photo)
Whisper House (Black button eyes photo)

2 1/2 stars

After his fighter pilot father is killed during WWII and his emotionally despondent mother is deemed incompetent, young Christopher (Leo Spiegel) is sent to live with his Aunt Lily (Kate Nawrocki), a lamp tender in a haunted lighthouse in Maine.

Since before the war, Aunt Lily has employed Yasuhiro (Karmann Bajuyo), a Japanese-American, as a kind of helper and all-around handyman. It becomes clear that over three years together the two have formed a bond that transcends their working relationship.

The backstory and characters’ inner thoughts and motivations are conveyed largely through song in a kind of jazz-rock smoky lounge style primarily delivered by two ghostly lovers who had been entertainers lost at sea nearby.

Book and lyrics are by Kyle Jarrow with an original score and lyrics by Duncan Sheik.

In the first number the ghoulish narrators introduce the ensemble with a repeating refrain suggesting each of them “would be better off dead” thus setting the tone for this tender if somewhat macabre love story that never quite comes to life.

Overall, the production seemed a bit lackluster. Perhaps the dark theme  keeps this cast from projecting some energy into their performances.

The score is sophisticated with a kind of easy hip quality but the execution lacks dynamic color so comes off sounding a bit like one continuous song.

Kevin Webb as the male ghost does his best to camp-it-up, thankfully without going too far. It is obvious he has an idea for his character and is working it together with Mikaela Sullivan as the female ghost joining in with some nice vocal harmonies.

Young Spiegel is well rehearsed and does an admirable job shouldering the responsibility to provide impetus for much of the action.

T.J. Anderson as Sheriff Charles (who incidentally seems to have a very good trumpet embouchure) is likeable, but I am not sure that is the major characteristic of the role he is playing. There is opportunity for quiet authority, intrigue and development that he is denying the audience and himself.

Nawrocki has a lot to do in her pivotal role and generally manages to figuratively keep all of the plates in the air.

While Bajuyo definitely gained steam as the play progressed, I am not certain he has fully embraced all that Yasuhiro has to offer.

At this moment the production seems a bit under-rehearsed and in need of the confidence to pull-off what has the potential to be a little gem.

This falls clearly on the shoulders of director Ed Rutherford and music director Micky York, but will likely improve over the four week run because the actors are capable professionals who will, no-doubt, tweak their performances over time.

However, they require feedback to draw out nuances in their portrayals that can help them deliver more satisfying multidimensional characterizations.

Even considering budget limitations, Liz Cooper’s lighting and Nikolaj Sorensen’s set design is uninspired for a play with such phantasmagorical and architectural potential.

Props designer Adrian Hadlock’s attention to detail, specifically in regard to the model airplane, camera, two-way radio, and Hoosier cabinet did not go unappreciated. Sadly the old brittle, yellowed newspaper is better as an inspiration than an actual prop.

Brendan Hutt (violence designer) provided a brief but effective moment.

In the final analysis, this Chicago premiere of “Whisper House” by Button Eyes Productions is a somewhat touching story of love and acceptance, with an unusual treatment and interesting musical score delivered by a competent cast but falling short in the way of fully inspired performances and visuals.

DETAILS: “Whisper House”  is a Black Button Eyes production at The Athenaeum Theatre (Studio Two), 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago through Feb. 15, 2020 . For tickets and more information call(773) 935-6875 or visit  OvationTix.com.

Reno Lovison

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