Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The notion of a thin place can be traced back to the ancient Celtic belief that in certain locations the veil between this material world and another world is thin, bringing the two closer together. In contrast, believed the Celts, in all other places heaven and earth are three feet apart. The belief in thin places has also been adopted by some Christians, who may claim that specific man-made sites such as St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City are thin places, or may identify certain places in the natural world as possessing the quality of thinness. You can find lists of such places on the internet though, of course, whether the quality of thinness attributed to them is real remains open to debate.
In Hnath's play, the thin place is not an edifice or geographic location but exists in the enduring relationship between a person living and a person deceased. At least, that is what Hilda is hoping to find in her efforts to reach her beloved grandmother who died when Hilda was much younger. Near the end of her life, her grandmother had lived with Hilda and her mother. She worked with her granddaughter on developing psychic communication, such as thinking about a random word and sending it, non-verbally, to Hilda. Hilda was to "listen" with her spirit, not her ears, until she could "hear" the word. She told Hilda that learning this would enable the two of them to communicate after she died. Hilda's mother was appalled by these notions which she considered nonsense or, worse, the work of demons.
Years late, Hilda, now a fully grown woman whose non-believing mother had recently died, attends a session held by a spiritual medium named Linda. Hilda is astonished by Linda's ability to make a connection to her grandmother and to convey messages back and forth between them. She lingers after the session to learn more about Linda's gift, and in short order, the two become close friends. Though Linda appears as a "salt of the Earth" type of person, she has a circle of well-off friends whom Hilda meets. A gathering with a cousin of Linda's named Jerry, who is some sort of political operative, and a wealthy friend of both Linda and Jerry, named Sylvia, serves as the jumping off point for the rest of the ninety-minute-long play. I dare not say more, but if this sounds like your cup of tea leaves, you won't be disappointed by all that follows.
Hnath is a prolific playwright whose work covers a wide range of topics, from the political comedy of Hillary and Clinton to Christian fundamentalism in The Christians to the morality of sports doping in Red Speedo. What all of his plays, at least the five I have seen to date, have in common is an examination of the nature of truth and the morality of taking liberties with it. Also, all of Hnath's works exhibit a finely tuned ear for language, capturing the way people in a particular situation talk with one another. This is true of The Thin Place, and because Hilda serves as the play's narrator, often speaking directly to the audience–not as if she is performing, but as if she is sharing her journey with a gathering of new-found friends–those narrations convey a feeling of guarded confessions.
Jane Froiland makes a persuasive Hilda, with a quiet naivete and openness that allows us to believe in her belief in the thin place that she shares with her grandmother, though as the play progresses she turns her beliefs into instruments that seem capable of creating their own reality. Cheryl Willis is phenomenal as Linda, a blowsy English woman now living in the United States, who readily admits that her English accent adds to the credibility she enjoys as a medium. She is nonchalant about the gift that enables her to connect the living with their departed loved ones, just all in a day's work as if it were no more than serving pints of ale at an English pub. Katherine Kupiecki creates a spot-on portrait of a woman of means who takes her privilege for granted while praising the virtue of a millionairess who lives in a small cabin in the woods and devotes her fortune to those in need. Peter Christian Hansen has the least to do as Jerry, standing on the fulcrum between hipsterism and pragmatism, but Hansen, as always, does it very well.
Technical director Carl Schoenborn designed the lighting which, along with Katherine Horowitz's sound design, is instrumental in telling this story, becoming more prominent as the play progresses. Sarah Bauer's costumes pinpoint each character's personality, from the prim Hilda to the flowing layers and glittery shoes fitting for a medium worn by Linda to Sylvia's high-end casual wear to Jerry's trendy duds. Director Ellen Fenster-Gharib brings together all of the creative elements along with the strong performances to give the production a constant momentum, with tension ratcheting up toward an ending that leaves the audience in a state of keen puzzlement, the good kind of puzzlement that prompts continued interaction with the substance of the play even when it is over.
The Thin Place gives the audience ample fodder for after-the-play conversations about what might or might not have been real in Hilda's telling of her encounter with the thin place. Could any of it be real? My own rationality and conviction that if a phenomenon is real, it comes with bona fide evidence, would color my response to the play, sure–but what about calling out to long-departed Kriss on the rim of the Grand Canyon? Was I, unknowingly, hoping that my words would pass into a thin place? It had not been on my mind at the time, but now that Hnath has laid the possibility of thin places out, I must at least consider it. Any play that can do that has done its job.
The Thin Place runs through December 3, 2023, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please visit gremlintheatre.org or call 1-888-71 TICKETS.
Playwright: Lucas Hnath; Director: Ellen Fenster-Gharib; Technical Director, Scenic and Light Designer: Carl Schoenborn; Costume and Prop Designer: Sarah Bauer; Sound Designer: Katherine Horowitz; Stage Manager: Gianna Haseman; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen.
Cast: Jane Froiland (Hilda), Peter Christian Hansen (Jerry), Katherine Kupiecki (Sylvia), Cheryl Willis (Linda).