Strange Tree’s ‘The Spirit Play’



Carolyn Klein as Miss Neal (Left) & Elizabeth Bagby as Miss Emery in The Strange Tree Group’s The Spirit Play. Photo by Tyler Core.

Do you believe in ghosts? My partner is an extreme skeptic, but I believe the spirit world floats around and among us — a notion one must respect. I mean, look what happened to the skeptical husband in Paranormal Activity II? OMG spoiler! Well, it’s a shitty movie anyway, so I just gave you 1.5 hours back — you’re welcome.

Strange Tree Group’s The Spirit Play, written by the prolific Emily Schwartz (seriously, the woman seems to sneeze out a new play for this group every other week) takes us into the wacky and whimsical world of the spirits. Jane Foust (Kate Nawrocki) and M. Gerard (Matt Holzfeind) are a brother/sister duo who reconnect late 19th century families with long lost loved ones through elaborate séances.

Or, perhaps they’re actually a husband and wife swindling team (along with Jane’s sister Ruth, played by Delia Baseman, who portrays the requisite spirit when called upon), who take advantage of people’s naïvety and unsteady emotional states to pocket the expensive talismans, such as rings, watches and diamonds, used to connect with their loved ones.

Or, perhaps Jane actually *can* speak with spirits, but her greed-driven husband thinks she’s delusional.

What to believe?

Things are getting rough for this cracker jack séance team. Jane’s conscience is eating away at her, Ruth is sick of being treated like the ghost she portrays, and M. Gerard’s temper is boiling up as their latest assignment has a lot at stake. The heartbroken Mr. Tennant (Bob Kruse) has recently lost his wife, and when he gives Jane his late wife’s gold ring, Jane suddenly feels a strong connection to her spirit. She wants to connect without the trickery, but M. Gerard’s focus is on the ring and a clean escape.

This play captured my imagination because it blurs the lines between reality and perceived reality. After all, when you believe something to be true, even if it isn’t, that’s your reality. Does Jane actually have psychic powers, or have her years of faking it suddenly convinced her she can actually make it? And Nawrocki’s sweet and sincere performance captivates, making it even harder to distinguish her intentions.

However, there’s a lot of excess and the play takes way too long to engage, which is partly due to Schwartz’s top-heavy script and Jimmy McDermott’s uneven direction. And several ancillary characters get in the way with extreme mugging and high camp. Scott Cupper, tasked with a very underwritten role, does too much to make it work. And the two women in the production photo above? I’m still not sure who they are or why there were there. But Carolyn Klein and Elizabeth Bagby try very hard to create memorable characters. Joe Schermoly’s appropriately Victorian parlor room set (expertly lit by Jordan Kardasz), serves its purpose, but I expected more from the wildly imaginative Strange Tree.

Still, the play is a fascinating two hours, filled with smoke, mirrors and mystery.

“The Spirit Play” plays through November 6 at DCA Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph Street. More info here >

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