Review: The Spirit Play (Strange Tree Group)

| October 13, 2011
Kate Nawrocki as Jane Foust - The Spirit Play     
The Spirit Play  

Written and Emily Schwartz
Directed by Jimmy McDermott  
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
thru Nov 6  |  tickets: $15-$25   |  more info

Check for half-price tickets 
        Read entire review



A lovely diversion for the Halloween season


Kate Nawrocki as Jane Foust - The Spirit Play

Strange Tree Group, i/a/w DCA Storefront Theater, presents
The Spirit Play

Review by Catey Sullivan 

Viva Emily La Strange. I mean Emily Schwartz. With The Spirit Play, the playwright’s macabre sensibility s put to delightfully spooky use with a based-in-reality tale of Victorian era occult personalities. Strange Tree Group’s latest is a lovely bit of business for Halloween, replete with moonlit graveyards, restless spirits and truly impressive sleights-of-hand. While The Spirit Play is not without flaws, it succeeds in nicely capturing both the romance and the necromancy of the season.

Bob Kruse as Mr. Tennant, Delia Baseman as Ruth Foust - The Spirt PlaySchwartz clearly did her research before penning the piece. The story has echoes of the real-life Fox sisters, a trio of raven-haired beauties who became celebrated mediums in the mid-19th century. As children, the sisters were constantly followed by mysterious rappings and other unexplained otherworldly phenomenon. As adults, they set themselves up as conduits to the other side, and became famous for facilitating séances wherein bereaved ladies and gentlemen could make contact with their lost loved ones. Part of the Foxes’ success was a matter of simply being in the right place at the right time. Spiritualism was quite the rage through the early 1900s, from the White House (Mary Todd Lincoln held repeated séances trying to contact her son Willie after he died of influenza) on down.

The Spirit Play centers on the aptly named Foust sisters, Jane (Kate Nawrocki) and Ruth (Delia Baseman). With their co-conspirator Mr. Gerard (Matt Holzfeind), the sisters arrive at the well-appointed Redspell home where they are to reach out to several recently and tragically deceased members of the Redspell ‘s inner circle. Among the dead that Jane says she’ll summon: Abigail Tennant, whose drowning suicide has shattered her husband, and young Sara Buchard, cruelly taken from her bereft parents by influenza.

Like the Foxes, the Foustian trio’s business plan doesn’t exactly adhere to the tenants of Truth in Advertising. As The Spirit Play reveals early on, they are a not-so-merry band of mountebanks, lining their pockets by preying on the vulnerable, running a con game that’s all smoke and cheap mirrors. Or is it? Schwartz has more than a few surprises up her velvet muttonchop sleeve in The Spirit Play. There are, as one might expect, plenty of things going bump in the night and much cheesy rigmarole that wouldn’t be out of place in a two-bit snake oil show. But there are also several did-I-really-just-see-that? moments wherein the seemingly impossible becomes creepily evident.

Delia Baseman, Bob Kruse - The Spirit Play, Strange Tree Group Jenifer Henry, Matt Holzfeind, Michael Downey - The Spirit Play
Carolyn Klein as Miss Neal, Elizabeth Bagby as Miss Emery - The Spirit Play Elizabeth Bagby, Carolyn Klein, Michael Downey - The Spirit Play

Thanks to Brett Schneider’s “magic design,” diamond rings skitter under their own power like planchettes on a Ouija board, furniture levitates and ghosts appear only to vanish like steam, fading into ether. The tricks aren’t the stuff of grand spectacle; which is a good thing as anyone who have ever been subjected to a David Copperfield show can attest. They are instead compact wonders that are deliciously perplexing.

Directed by Jimmy McDermott, the ensemble is – for the most part – similarly intriguing. The group is anchored by Kate Nawrocki as Jane Foust, a vampire-pale woman in possession of a bedeviling conscience and, perhaps, a genuine gift for communing with the spirit world. As Jane’s angry, much-abused sister Ruth, Delia Baseman makes for a ruthless and tough foil to Jane’s wide-eyed wonder and increasing concerns about rooking the bereaved. Equally fine is Bob Kruse as the deranged-with-sorrow widower Mr. Tennant. Whether curled up at his late wife’s tombstone or drunkenly stumbling through his grief, Kruse brings just the right amount of heartbreak to the tale.

Not so effective is Matt Holzfeind as the sisters’ conniving boss The primary problem is that he’s miscast: Holzfeind’s on-stage presence reads young and innocent where the role calls for cruel and manipulative. He looks more ingénue than charlatan, and that look leeches his scenes of some of their power.

There is also trouble with Hubert Redspell (Scott Cupper). Redspell is a terribly inconsistent fellow, and not in a good way: One moment, Hubert is an oily, would-be ladies man, a bounder constantly kissing hands and cozying up to whatever winsome female he finds himself near. The next moment, he’s fey and exaggeratedly effeminate. Director McDermott needs to decide which way to go with Hubert, so to speak, and commit to it. Otherwise, Hubert’s conflicting personas merely distracts from the story at hand. Also a bit distracting? The live musical accompaniment. It’s not that pianist Marty Scanlon lacks finesse on the keyboard. The trouble is he’s charged with playing at seemingly random intervals. When the music suddenly starts up after being silent for several scenes, the effect is that of a disjointed mini-concert breaking out.

All those flaws, however, are minor. This is a play that needs tweaking, not whole-scale revamping. On the whole, Schwartz ‘s has created a lovely diversion for the season of witches, ghosts and the truly hallowed Day of the Dead .

Rating: ★★

Carolyn Klein, Elizabeth Bagby, Jenifer Henry, Matt Holzfeind

The Spirit Play continues through November 6th at the DCA Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $15-$25, and are available by phone (312-742-TIXS) or online at More information at (Running time: 2 hours, which includes one 10-minute intermission)

All photos by Tyler Core 




Kate Nawrocki* (Jane Foust); Delia Baseman* (Ruth Foust); Matt Holzfeind* (Mister Gerard); Scott Cupper* (Hubert Redspell); Elizabeth Bagby* (Miss Emery); Bob Kruse* (Mr. Tennant); Jenifer Henry* (Mrs. Buchard); Michael Thomas Downey* (Mr. Buchard); Carolyn Klein* (Miss Neal); Kay Schmitt (Mrs. Redspell); Marty Scanlon (The Musician); Delia Baseman, Karen Shimmin, Jennifer Marschand, Sarah Scanlon, Cory Aiello

behind the scenes

Jimmy McDermott (director); Delia Baseman* (costumes); Brett Schneider* (magic design); Tyler Core* (photography); Phineas X. Jones* (poster design); Sarah Luse (production manager); Kathy Mountz (stage manager); Joe Schmeroly (set design); Jordan Kardasz (lighting); Michael Huey (sound design, original composition); Megan Shuchman (dramaturg)

* denotes Strange Tree Group company members and associate

Delia Baseman, Kate Nawrocki, Scott Cupper, Matt Holzfeind - Spirit Play


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Category: 2011 Reviews, Catey Sullivan, DCA Theatre, Holiday Show, Storefront Theatre, Strange Tree Group

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