“Whisper House” begins as a young boy named Christopher (Andrew Ramos) is sent to live with his aunt Lily (Kelly Mengelkoch) at her Maine lighthouse. As anyone who has read any Stephen King books could tell you, Maine is something of a hotbed for the supernatural and creepy. This lighthouse is no exception. The ghosts of two singers (Erin Wade and Cary Davenport) haunt the old building. They are spirits from a pleasure cruise that sank decades ago when the lighthouse was late in illuminating the treacherous rocks. The two vengeful ghosts are the not-so-invisible hand that drives the plot, as their apparent goal is to prevent anyone living from finding the love and peace their untimely deaths denied them.
Erin Ward is an unnaturally emotive and threatening presence on stage. Cary Davenport keeps pace with a shuffling, agitated manner, sometimes bursting into bouts of vaudevillian mockery. Being singers in their former lives, they also form the chorus of “Whisper House.” Yes, this ghost story is also a musical, with music and lyrics by ’90s pop/rock singer Duncan Sheik, who has since turned to composing a bit more off the beaten path. The role of the ghosts, in such capable hands, serves to beautifully tie together the music, plot and theme of the production. From the moment Christopher arrives at Lily’s lighthouse, they hover menacingly over every scene, subtly manipulating the living to guide them toward disaster — a powerful antithesis to the lighthouse they inhabit.
Lily’s live-in handyman, Mr. Yasuhiro (Adam Tran), is a Japanese man who has lived in America long enough to call it home. Unfortunately, this is 1942, and by Roosevelt’s executive order, no one of Japanese descent is allowed to live near the coast. Sheriff Charles (Brant Russell) arrives with instructions for Lily from the Coast Guard, including an order to remove Yasuhiro. Kelly Mengelkoch is an absolute gem, bringing palpable gravity to the stage as Lily. Her chemistry with Adam Tran is perfect — at first awkward, despite a clear history of mutual respect, but the uncertain threads unravel to reveal a binding connection between them.
Brant Russell fits the role of the sheriff perfectly. He’s congenial and hilarious, but subtly dangerous — a representative of blind, chest-thumping patriotism of the sort that too often leads to a disregard for humanity in favor of fear and tribalism. When he meets Christopher, he finds an extremely vulnerable boy. Christopher’s father was a pilot, killed in action in the Pacific. His mother, driven to attempted suicide by her grief, has been locked in an asylum. The kid is desperate to prove he can step up and take care of his mother, and the sheriff, perhaps with good intentions but informed by the same sort of nationalistic indoctrination, simultaneously feeds the boy’s sense of duty and suspicion of “the Jap.”
According to the program, Andrew Ramos is in eight grade, but he’s way too talented to be that young. His tone and timing are completely on the spot in every line, and he apparently has no trouble keeping up with his veteran castmates. One can only hope we’ll be seeing more of him in the next few years.
This show has a few layers to peel back. When you do, you find a deeply moving exploration of guilt on both a micro and macro level. It doesn’t ask us to atone or even to apologize for the ghosts in our past. All it asks is that we confront them. When we face the things we regret, we can find a path toward empathy and understanding. That’s a powerful message, and “Whisper House” frames it beautifully.
Catch “Whisper House” at Know Theatre of Cincinnati from now until August 19.
Zach Moning is the communications manager at ArtsWave. Reach him here with questions or comments about ArtsWave Guide.