Theater Wit opens their new season with “Household Spirits,” a dark dramatic comedy about family, loss and alcohol addiction—with a supernatural twist—written by Mia McCullough and directed by Eileen Tull.
The play follows a middle-class family unable to let go of the sins of their past; or rather, the sins of their past won’t let go of them. Philip (Doug MacKechnie) never fully got over the death of his first wife, Clara (Ilyssa Fradin), whose mental instability led to her suicide.
Unbeknownst to the family, Clara is still around, tethered to the house in spirit form. She occupies her time observing the family’s day-to-day activities. She speaks but they can’t hear her. Through practice she gains the ability to manipulate tangible objects. She bothers Philip’s son, Erik (Nathan Hile), while he’s incessantly playing on his phone, and spooks Erik’s workaholic stepmother, Evelyn (Jennifer Jelsema), and her outgoing daughter, Rox (Téa Baum), by rattling pots and pans and opening closed doors.
The only one who “talks” to Clara is the family’s house manager, Angela (Cindy Gold), an older Italian woman with a smart mouth who believes in ghosts.
Despite Clara’s interventions, the family is unaware of her presence and goes on with their daily routines. Philip develops a drinking problem. Evelyn puts work before family and then wonders why no one wants to talk to her. The children take swigs of tequila while bemoaning the difficulties of being teenagers making the transition into adulthood.
There are subplots that involve lesser characters. Leo (Joe Zarrow), Evelyn’s ex-husband, is just out of jail and snoops around their house for reasons that aren’t apparent until the end. Far from being menacing or interesting, Leo comes off as a pest who serves only to provide conflict to move the story along.
Julia, a human-sized doll voiced by Suzanne Petri, is used as a hiding place to stash booze and other objects, and as a humanoid conduit for Clara to express herself; but it gets a little bizarre during monologues where the doll describes how delightful it is to have objects crammed into her orifices—these monologues are solipsistic and cannot be heard by the family or even Clara the ghost.
The overarching narratives of grief over death, marital disharmony and teenage angst frame a deeper subtext: Philip’s alcoholism. For anyone who has struggled with alcohol addiction, Philip’s behavior hits strikingly close to home. His mind is always on booze. He frantically searches the kitchen for a family member’s secret stash. One tentative sip turns into a full-blown relapse. When nearly everything in society involves alcohol, the allure of a drink seems impossible to avoid.
(Even an evening enjoying this show means crossing the bar in the theater lobby twice. After you leave the building, across the street is another bar.)
After Philip hits rock bottom, the double entendre in the show’s title becomes apparent. Being haunted by liquid spirits makes an invisible ghost wife who opens the occasional door seem benign by comparison. That is, until the final scene.
Clara gets desperate after learning that the family is planning to move, which would leave her alone in the house. As the story behind her suicide becomes clear, a startling realization turns Clara from a misanthropic specter into a formidable ghoul.
“Household Spirits” is a ghoulishly good show, with witty one-liners, relatable character development and a creepy twist ending. Looking past the surface, it shows how difficult it is to live with substance addiction in a society that actively promotes it.
“Household Spirits” runs through November 11 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont. Tickets are $15-$55 and are available by calling the box office at (773)975-8150 or by visiting theaterwit.org.