I am a Bawlmer girl, so when someone from my home town is making fabulous art, I will herald their success from the top of Federal Hill! As is the case with Collaborative Theater Company and Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production of “The Quickening.” Written by Mark Scharf and directed by Ann Turiano, this is a tale of ghosts and supernatural beings filled with frights and fears.
The story begins with Beth and Matt moving from Baltimore down to the outskirts of Richmond. As they are moving into their new home, they find out from a neighbor that the house is built on a battlefield. Matt is a Civil War re-enactor and is thrilled by this news, Beth, not so much so. As unexplained phenomena continue to occur, she starts to realize she is not alone in her new home, even when no one is home but her. As a very pregnant mom, she does whatever she can to protect her home and family.
The other conflict as the play opens is the loss of the family pet, a Golden Retriever named Taylor that escapes the house and is mentioned throughout the play. There are visible signs of a dog on stage- the bed, the toys, the dog bowl, but the dog issue is mostly unresolved throughout the play. In the notes from playwright Scharf he says, “a notable thing about that reading was the reaction to the dog in the play. Buy me a drink sometime and ask me about it.” Well, I did not get a chance on opening night, post-play, with a dizzying spread of southern food (big biscuits, fried chicken, deviled eggs and sweet tea- you know how to charm a southern girl at heart!) to engage Scharf in a canine conversation. I wasn’t ever sure if the dog was going to appear or not due to that note. And in keeping with a spoiler free review, I shan’t tell you either. I think the premonition of the dog is a more powerful tool to the suspense of the play than whether the dog actually comes on stage or not.
The most pleasant surprise to the cast was my introduction to Debbie Bennett as Philomena. When she took the stage to frame the narrative in the beginning, I was skeptical. But as the show progressed, and her character arced, she had some pointed one-liners and I associated the most with her while watching. She calls out Matt on his Rebel “toy soldier” outfit, points out the incredibility of these strange occurrences, and works as the grounding force for the play. She is a joy and delight as an actress! It says in her bio she has no formal training- I beg to differ. Stage experience and her workshops are indoctrination by fire. Bennett was sweet and charming but with an open-mind and a southerners caustic edge. Well done.
Amanda Spellman as Beth, and David Shoemaker as Matt are a cute couple. Shoemaker is at his best when he is coddling and cooing to his pregnant wife while trying to calm her fears. It has to be hard to play a character that feels he can justify being pseudo-racist. The tension of that scene was tangible. Amanda is appropriately high-strung and neurotic. My only comment, as a mother of two, is that she probably is a little more sluggish and not quite so quick to move. Spellman goes up and down the two-tiered stage twenty to thirty times inside of an hour, something I would never had accomplished while in my last trimester. Spellman’s best scene is her reactions to the panicked phantasms. Her shrieks, her sobs, her breakdowns are intuitive.
Marianne Gazzola Angelella as Beth’s mother Rosemary, doesn’t enter until Act 2, when Beth wins the argument, and gets to call in her mother for assistance with the ghostly ghouls. Angelella’s “Baltimore” accent was a bit thick- most people don’t quite speak that way, even if they were raised in Bawlmer, hon. She is the one who gets to explain the title as well. “The Quickening” is when the mother first becomes aware of the fetus (the first bump, kick, etc.) or in the case of the play, when the spirit becomes aware that it might be able to re-live by possessing the unborn fetus. Angelella is vague at the end, does she believe her daughter or that this whole mess is insanity? The ambiguity is poignant and leaves room for a post-show discussion.
The set design by Cassandra Dutt is useful, although that two-tier step is often skipped over for just a “walk through wall” scenario where actors take an extra large step (even while very prego). The most notable is the mess of boxes in the beginning that are so quickly whisked away to make a lived in home look, well, lived in. The stage manager, Julie Anderson, and assistant stage manager, Sebastian Sears, are efficient and stealth. The quick change is simple but very effective. The set of French doors in the rear were a bit sticky on opening night, as well as the sheers covering them. When the actors had trouble, they, in true improv form, just commented that “the doors need work.”
Costuming by Jackie Rebok is simple and modern, with an intentional anachronism for Shoemaker’s Rebel Soldier costume. The lighting design by Tabetha White is also effective as strobes and pulses work to underscore the more intense scenes of the play. Sound design by Devyn Deguzman is also well executed with all the right harsh notes that make the audience jump on cue.
Producer Sean Coe and Director Ann Turiano carefully craft a scary story of bumps in the night. Although the play has been workshopped several times since its induction, I thought there was still a bit of a slow pace to much of the beginning. Once the “scares” have been introduced, Turiano milks the next one for all it is worth. Often setting up a scene, and then letting it hang. The audience, rightfully, moves up to the edge of their seat in anticipation of the next good horror. When some of them are slow coming, it just heightens the tension, and the wait time for the upcoming spooky unraveling is heart-thumping.
This is the season is of “unfinished business” of FPCT. And in conjunction with The Collaborative, this ends the season on a rather definitive note. That they are not afraid of new works, and a few bumps in the night. Keep bringing up new theater and we will keep coming back! Add this haunted evening, to your regular list of Fells Point haunts.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Do you like horror movies? Do you like suspense and discussions of supernatural? This is your play! Go and support local playwright Scharf, The Collaborative Theater Company, and FPCT as they end their season on a high note. The thrills and chills are real, the hauntings and ghostly encounters leave the audience wanting more, and the unease as you exit the theater is real- not contrived. An enjoyable night of apparitions, inquisitions, and a bit of quantum physics, oh my! (I)
Running through July 1st at Fells Point Corner Theater. Running time 2 hours with a fifteen-minute intermission. Photo Credit: Shaelyn Jae.