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Whisper House

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 20, 2022

Molly Hager, Alex Boniello, and Samantha Mathis
Photo by Richard Termine
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in," wrote Robert Frost in his narrative poem "Death of the Hired Man." And while the poet himself may have taken some personal satisfaction from this clever witticism, the irascible character who says it means it. As it happens, it also makes for an apt description of the relationship between a 12-year-old boy and his crusty aunt in whose care he has been placed in Whisper House, a chamber musical by Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics) and Kyle Jarrow (book and lyrics) opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters.

Whisper House started life as a studio album in 2009, not long after Sheik's multiple Tony winning Spring Awakening ended its initial Broadway run. The album was quickly turned into a "musical play" that was initially performed in 2010 in San Diego and had at least one other production in Chicago before wending its way east.

This production by the Civilians marks the show's New York debut. It follows the story of young Christopher (Wyatt Cirbus), who has been sent to live with his taciturn Aunt Lily (Samantha Mathis) on the heels of the death of his father in a World War II battle and the subsequent mental collapse of his mother. "Don't call me "ma'am" or "aunt," Lily instructs Christopher. "Or auntie, that's even worse." They settle on "Miss Lily" for whatever communication is necessary between them.

Lily's decidedly uninviting home sits on the rugged coast of Maine, a lighthouse that she oversees and where she lives a mostly isolated life. Her only regular companion is an assistant, a Japanese man named Mr. Yasuhiro (James Yaegashi). There's also the local sheriff (Jeb Brown), who pops in on occasion and is generally friendly, except when it comes to Mr. Yasuhiro. Given that the musical takes place in 1942, at a time of war-fed anti-Japanese xenophobia and internment camps, it is no spoiler to suggest you will likely foresee the general direction of the plot. But pay heed to the details as they unfold. As in life, they are seldom as predictable as you might guess at or wish for.

As for those "whispers," they are the show's songs that are performed mostly by a pair of generally unpleasant ghosts (Alex Boniello and Molly Hager) who have been hanging around the lighthouse ever since they died in a boating accident. While they provide some narrative context to the plot, they are mostly there to wallow in their own fates while singing moody alt rock tunes with sardonic lyrics about how everyone would be "better off dead." Throughout the 90-minute show, they are there to feed into the living characters' negative emotions of fear, loneliness, anger, and regret. And, really, if you say you don't believe in ghosts, that doesn't bother them, as "there's nothing you can do/cause we don't believe in you."

By show's end, we are left with a scintilla of hope, and, for the time being, even the ghosts have relented somewhat, like the ebbing of the tide that carried them to shore long before. But do not go expecting grand revelations or sweeping emotional transformations. This is decidedly not The Secret Garden. The show is called Whisper House for a reason. It is as spare and precarious as its setting. The best we can do, it seems to say, is to hold tight to one another, knowing, as the ghosts are happy to remind us, "none of us survive."

Whisper House
59E59 Theaters
Through February 6, 2022
59 East 59th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: