Theater Review: WHISPER HOUSE (Black Button Eyes Productions at The Athenaeum Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 13, 2020

in Theater-Chicago

A LIGHTHOUSE SPILLS ITS SECRETS

Isolation forces intimacy on its inhabitants, if only by its process of elimination. It can also foster secrets: Scattered souls protect their privacy by keeping stuff to themselves. In The Secret Garden or The Turn of the Screw what’s hidden must out — to respectively good and evil ends.

This strategic formula works in Whisper House, an 80-minute chamber musical with songs and lyrics by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and book by Kyle Jarrow (The Spongebob Squarepants Musical). Set in a lonely lighthouse in Maine during World War II, it spills its secrets in a persuasive Chicago premiere from Black Button Eyes Productions, a company that specializes in the spectral and supernal.

This sometimes spooky one-act is chronicled by two garrulous ghosts played by Mikaela Sullivan and Kevin Webb. They were once entertainers who became casualties of the “Solomon Snell,” a yacht that sank under avoidable circumstances in front of a tragically darkened lighthouse. Seeking revenge against living lovers who escaped their fate, they indulge in somber songs that tell dark lessons about the dangers of playing safe and trusting people. Like them, “it’s better to be dead.”

Among the living, Lily (Kate Nawrocki), the club-footed lighthouse keeper, is the aunt of young Christopher (Leo Spiegel) whose father died in action and whose mother has been institutionalized for grief. Knowing that she’s not good with people, she struggles to mother her confused nephew. Lily’s only other companion is devoted Yasuhiro (Karmann Bajuyo), a wood-carving Japanese-American handyman who has become for Lily a kind of surrogate spouse.

Bringing the war into this rocky outcrop is the local sheriff Charles (T.J. Anderson). He’s working with the Coast Guard to counter any offshore U-boats menacing the coastline. Predictably, he objects to the presence of a supposed enemy alien in this restricted zone. (A hidden camera becomes a major prop in the plot.) But, despite an imminent interning, Yasuhiro, Lily’s lifeline in hard time, fully intends to return.

As they contend with wartime paranoia, aunt and nephew become each other’s beacons, “keeping each other from sinking” even as the overly patriotic Christopher learns a lesson in loyalty. Proving that ectoplasm can be educated, the ghosts too discover the limits of their posthumous negativity.

Well performed, the songs, coached by Micky York and artfully accompanied by a five-person band, hold their own despite some merely serviceable lyrics. Director Ed Rutherford inspires solid work from six actors: Spiegel brings immediate vulnerability to his malleable Christopher, though Anderson seems a tad too nice as a xenophobic lawman.

To quote Virginia Woolf, it would not be wrong to head “to the lighthouse.”

photos by Evan Hanover

Whisper House
Black Button Eyes Productions
The Athenaeum Theatre (Studio 2), 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on February 15, 2020
for tickets, call 773.935.6875 or visit Athenaeum or Black Button Eyes

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