Pineapple-Shaped Lamps (PSL) has carved out an interesting niche in the Wilmington theatre scene. They started out doing shadow casts for “Rocky Horror” and other fan-driven cult phenomena, as well as sketch comedy. Today they’ve evolved into a production company that showcases edgy scripts, as well as stellar locally written scripts that go through the rigorous review and editing process of their writers’ room. The latest such offering is Chase Harrison’s “In Sanity,” playing at the North Front Theatre (née City Stage).
Harrison loves horror. He loves H. P. Lovecraft, John Carpenter, Poe, slasher films, and all things filled with terror and gore. For the last few years, he has been treating Wilmington audiences to a steady stream of theatrical creations centering around the horror genre. “In Sanity” is his most frightening yet.
At an abandoned insane asylum/hospital, things are never quite as quiet as they appear. For former orderly Dwight Combs (Phil Antonino), it calls to him, literally. It seems like the perfect spot to ride out a kidnapping and extortion plot he has been hired to execute. But he gets more than he bargained for with Chaney Garris (Brendan Carter) and Gunnar Todd (Hal Cosec), two career criminals. Yet, Dwight knows something they do not—and it terrifies him. Piece by piece, he starts to put together the story of the riot/massacre at the asylum when the patients revolted and killed over 100 people. He was there—he escaped. Still, he is haunted by that night.
Antonino’s Dwight is a man who is terrified of everything. Just being in the same room with him could freak out anyone—even Carter’s Chaney, a usually brash guy who swaggers about the stage. He starts to worry and weaken, too, when things don’t add up—he’s not used to that. But who exactly is this apparition called “Abby” (Jessica Farmer) that some can see but others can’t?
Cavorting and contorting across the stage—and at times riding other characters themselves like she is an evil koala bear—Farmer’s Abby is hard to ignore. She is creepy, scary and even more terrifying is the fact that sometimes she can be desirable. Harrison’s script toys with wicked temptation. Just when I thought Carter and Cosec’s characters were going to battle to the death, Harrison pulled a plot twist, and both Cosec and Carter sold it so believably it kept me up that night. Throughout the show, Harrison makes the script a genre piece of interest rather than predictability.
Again, I thought I had a handle on what was happening before two paranormal investigators wandered on stage. Rachel (Emily Gomez) and Jeff (Jordan Vogt) have all the best aspects of “The Blair Witch Project,” crossed with bumbling inadequacies of amateurs. On the one hand, they are really quite funny and cute to watch as they try to maneuver their equipment. Jeff seems to have a pretty reasonable response to the situation: Fleeing looks like the best plan! But something in Rachel just doesn’t sit right. What is it she’s after? Her reveal is almost heartbreaking when the answer comes to light; it makes the groundwork she invested leading up to it worth gold.
The foil of Dr. Heather Rami (Erin Hunter) and her calm certainty about Rachel’s fate arouses the twin emotions of humor and terror. She has an acceptance that is just disturbing; it is clearly hiding something. But what? From where did she get her focus? As the answers to these questions unfold, audiences can’t help but wince and cringe—especially in the third act when we meet Sid Suggs (David Heck). He’s a sadistic orderly at the asylum during its heyday. The answers click into place, but again, not expectedly.
With so many plot twists and turns, it is essential the performers play the moment, not the end result, otherwise the whole thing becomes an exercise in futility.
“No one in that cast has arthritis,” my date commented. “That was physically demanding.”
He’s right; it is pretty demanding and the cast do not sacrifice or skimp. Harrison has assembled actors who truly find the notes he wants and sell the script. The third act has parts so sweet, it will almost break your heart before it hits blood, gore and terror. Harrison doesn’t abandon story or pathos for a few effects and some jokes. There is a legitimate arc and it is compelling. Don’t get me wrong, this is genre entertainment and the point is to have a scary but good time—not to comment on the state of the world. It is “escapism” in the best sense of the word.
Eddie Key’s set has some wonderful playful elements that really let the performers explore and surprise the audience. The choice to stage it at the North Front Theatre, though, is nothing short of inspiring. Tucked away on the fifth floor of the Masonic Temple Building, in such a beautiful space that radiates gothic ambiance, the same impact would not have happened in a black-box theatre. In spite of numerous sound effects, audiences can actually hear the performers and follow the plot. Beau Mumford’s lighting design enhances each terrifying moment. Technically, the show comes together seamlessly.
Harrison’s script and the cast performances will sit with audiences for days and resurface at unexpected moments. and isn’t that the real sign of remarkable art? It is wonderful to see talented people on stage doing good work and clearly having tremendous fun. It is infectious. Hats off to all of them!