Posted by: cantmisssd | February 16, 2010

Whisper House

Seeking out historical parallels for modern fears is natural and probably healthy. There’s a decided comfort to knowing- or at least believing- that other people have faced these same challenges and the world is still here. In the Old Globe’s current production of Whisper House, the string of human experience connecting us all to the ghosts of the past is explored both literally and figuratively, as ghosts of a decades old shipwreck haunt the isolation, fear and mistrust of the caretakers of a lighthouse against the backdrop of more ambigious uncertainties of World War Two.

The story opens as Christopher arrives at the lighthouse where his aunt is the caretaker. His father has been shot down in the South Pacific, and he’s thrust indefinitely into the care of his estranged and emotionally closed-off aunt Lilly and forced to wrestle with his grief when he meets the Japanese assistant caretaker at the lighthouse, ‘Mr.’Yasuhiro. Yasuhiro’s hidden agenda is exposed as new military regulations demand the relocation of all Japanese from at-risk areas.

Providing musical narration and indulgent support for the boy’s assumptions are the ghosts of a lovelorn couple who drowned 20 years earlier because the lighthouse lamp was out. As ghosts tend to be in such stories, they’re mischevious and malicious as they lead Christopher down a path to undermine others’ chance for love.

Music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik is apparently one of the primary draws, but I’ve always been indifferent to his work, so I went in with no particular excitement or expectation. While the music occasionally lapsed lyrically into painful literalism, it functioned well and carried the narrative. Leaving the theatre, there didn’t seem to be the buzz that the final curtain usually brings, perhaps because the structure doesn’t lend itself to developing an emotional connection to the story or characters. The songs take up a major portion of the 90 minute runtime, but aren’t an active part of the plot. The songs narrate what’s happening, but those things don’t actually happen. So often, the actual action of Whisper House feels disjointed vignettes chosen at random to break up the minstrel chronicle of events.

Ultimately though, I was impressed by how well the production juggled eternal themes of insecurity, heartbreak and isolation while connecting the racial fears of the wartime 40s with post-9/11, vaguely-racial paranoia. Race- and visual cues in general- provide a clumsy brush for judgment. But in times when that which threatens us seems immeasurably beyond our control, the most accessible outlet for our fears is often the most attractive. And whiled we may not always have a poorly defined, difficult to combat foreign enemy, the fundamental fears and insecurities of opening up emotionally is universal and eternal. Multiple generations of love lost make sure we remember that it’s simply part of being alive.


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