An Irish ghost story
The Veil is much more than a genre piece, however
Theatre on the Ridge has been in operation for 41 years. In that time, it has built up a loyal following that can be relied upon to show up for most or all of its productions, from light-hearted comedies to envelope-pushing modern dramas.
That has given Artistic Director Jerry Miller the freedom to intersperse the crowd-pleasers with challenging, provocative plays such as Conor McPherson’s The Veil, which runs through Oct. 2.
Directed by Joe Hilsee, a longtime Chico actor and director (Blue Room and Rogue theatres), the play is set in rural Ireland in 1822, in the drawing room of the home of an English woman, Lady Madeleine Lambroke (Rebecca Lacque). She’s a widow (her husband hanged himself in that very room) and is so heavily in debt she is in danger of losing the family lands. She also hasn’t paid her employees for 13 months. She intends to solve her problems with the dowry her 17-year-old daughter, Hannah, will receive from marrying a wealthy English aristocrat.
As the play begins, two men tasked with escorting Hannah to England arrive. They are The Rev. Berkeley, a defrocked Anglican priest, and Charles Audelle, a laudanum-addicted “philosopher” with a troubled past.
These men, it turns out, have an ulterior motive. They’re aware that Hannah has extrasensory powers and want to use her to ferret out the “spirits” of dead people—notably her own father—who they are convinced haunt the house.
That’s just the beginning, of course. The Veil has some scary moments, but it is much more than a ghost story. As Hilsee suggests in his program notes, it’s a historical metaphor outlining the relationship between the English aristocracy and its impoverished Irish tenant farmers. It’s also a Chekhovian family drama, though with a dash of horror story thrown in. And it’s a spiritualist drama that explores the thin veil between ordinary reality and the “spirit world.”
If The Veil sounds overstuffed, that’s because it is. Too much of the story is conveyed by talking about things that have happened elsewhere. This is especially true in the case of The Rev. Berkeley. Christopher Scott does a fine job with this pompous and deceitful character, but he’s got so many lines he sometimes sucks the air out of the play.
Nick Anderson, who as Audelle doesn’t have quite as many lines, is so creepy I wondered why anybody would trust him to care for Hannah.
She’s played by Alexandra Hilsee with febrile determination. She resents being “sold” into marriage but understands that her mother has no other options. Meanwhile, she’s hearing “voices,” and Berkeley and Audelle are conspiring to use her powers to their advantage.
The Irish characters are Mrs. Goulding (Dona Gavagan Dausey), a housekeeper and nurse; Clare Wallace (Tatum Hazelton), a housemaid; and Mr. Fingal (Bruce Dillman), the estate manager. Dausey and Dillman do a good job of sounding Irish, especially Dillman, the aggrieved manager who catalyzes the play’s resolution (suffice to say that a shotgun was introduced in the first act).
Then there’s Grandie (Mary Burns), Madeleine’s demented grandmother, who provides comic relief with a half-dozen wacky lines boldly shouted. Burns is terrific. And Lacque, as Madeleine, is solid as the realist in the bunch.
McPherson may have tried to do too much in The Veil, but he gave his actors a lot to work with. Hilsee and his cast have taken full advantage of the richness of the script and transcended its limitations.