Mediums on the loose in Chicago, scaring few

THEATER REVIEW: "The Spirit Play" by The Strange Tree Group ★★

Delia Baseman (center) as Ruth Foust, Kate Nawrocki as Jane Foust, Scott Cupper as Hubert Redspell, and Matt Holzfeind as Mr. Gerard in "The Spirit Play."

Delia Baseman (center) as Ruth Foust, Kate Nawrocki as Jane Foust, Scott Cupper as Hubert Redspell, and Matt Holzfeind as Mr. Gerard in "The Spirit Play." (October 10, 2011)

In the Chicago of the 1870s, the fashionable drawing rooms of Prairie Avenue were frequently host to spiritualists, mediums and charlatans, often folks playing all three of those roles at once. With lowered gas lights and a bit of hocus-pocus and table magic, the bereaved could be persuaded that their dearly departed floated once again amongst them.

After all, people died young during that era in Chicago. And The Great Fire — coincidentally, the subject of the current show at the Lookingglass Theatre — was very much seared into the civic memory.

That's the milieu for "The Spirit Play," the latest attraction from The Strange Tree Group and the very promising Chicago playwright Emily Schwartz, both of whom have a particular affinity for badly behaved Victorians (Schwartz wrote the excellent piece "The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen," staged last year at the Steppenwolf Theatre). Schwartz's latest premiering play — staged just in time for Halloween by Strange Tree at the Department of Cultural Affairs' downtown Storefront Theater — features an elaborate re-creation of a seance, as conducted by a little team of tricksters whose own cynical attitude to matters spiritual is in for a severe test.

It all sounds very juicy and, indeed, there are some zesty bits of writing, a few rich and engaging performances (especially from the excellent Delia Baseman and Kate Nawrocki, as a pair of sisterly tricksters, in too deep) and some quite elaborate on-stage magic from designer Brett Schneider, involving disappearances, levitations and the like.

But the fundamental overall problem with Jimmy McDermott's production is that it allows an unnecessarily mannered Victorian style to compromise crucial believability. The long-departed ladies and gentlemen of the Near South Side may indeed have been gullible, but these industrialists surely weren't stupid, which is what they would have had to have been to believe some of the stuff taking place before their eyes here. In short, the piece tends to condescend to its characters, which is invariably a fatal mistake.

This feels especially acute, I think, because the show dips its toes in the realm of actual magic. The moment you bring classic illusions into play, notions of credibility inevitably rush to the forefront. Alas, this production is also afflicted by broad characterizations and campy acting (not to mention some characters who seem undeveloped and thus unnecessary). This is very much a temptation of the genre — McDermott is playing with notions of Victorian melodrama — but also the opposite of what the show needs to really work.

Lighting is also a constant problem here. Characters keep talking about the dark, but everything seems too brightly lit for the tricks to actually be tricking anyone.

Once the show moves away from the over-ripe seances and into the more credibly played backstory and subsequent meltdown of the spiritualists, things works better. But the show remains strangely removed and lacking the kind of detail that would allow tension to rise. One leaves mildly entertained, but neither fully beguiled by the spooky season nor with useful new insights into the insecurities of early Chicagoans.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Nov. 6

Where: Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Tickets: $15-$20 at 312-742-8497 or dcatheater.org.

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