All local writer Chase Harrison ever wanted to be as a child was a “Master of Horror.” His love for the genre had begun with the real Master of Horror, John Carpenter, whose work on “Halloween” captivated Harrison in the ‘80s. Harrison studied all the horror tropes and mores apparent in Carpenter’s movies, as well as those told in the stories of evil icons Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.
In a short three years, 2015-2018, Harrison has taken his childhood passion and turned them into a “Madness Trilogy,” as he calls it, for Wilmington audiences. The playwright oversaw “Wendigo” (which focused on ghost stories) at the now-defunct Browncoat Theatre in 2015, and just last October, “TheaTerror” (about a serial killer) made its debut on the TheatreNOW stage. Each won Harrison accolades at the StarNews Theater Awards in 2016 and 2018. Up next: “In Sanity,” a show focused on the concept of the haunted house. Harrison found a lot of inspiration in Kubrick’s “The Shining”—but with one caveat: had it been directed by Lucio Fulci (“Four of the Apocalypse,” “Zombie 2”).
“Fulci films have a wonderful unsettling air about them, where a sense of dread not only exists, but it’s expanding out, consuming and corrupting us and our world,” Harrison tells.
Harrison set “In Sanity” in an asylum—the Jarvis Thompson Home for the Mentally UnCalm—which closed due to riots that ensued one fated evening. Made up of three acts, the audience is courted through various stages of the hospital and how its nefarious reputation grew. It starts with the kidnapping of heiress Asia Fulci, who’s captured by career criminals (Brendan Carter and Hal Cosec). While waiting for their ransom, an “evil cursing of the land” arises, which then takes the story into the future when a paranormal investigator and her students (Erin Hunter, Jordan Vogt, Emily Gomez) head back into the halls of Jarvis Thompson to find the root of evil. The show moves between timelines and goes back to the beginning in Act 3.
“We jump all the way to the last night in which the Home of the Un-Calm was a functioning hospital, when the riots broke out,” Harrison explains, “to meet the head orderly Sig Suggs (who might be the most vile character I’ve written so far), played by David Heck, and the newest staff hire, Dwight Combs, played by Phill Antonino.”
Harrison’s haunted-house focus for “In Sanity” is to shine a light back on the concept of human nature creating evil—unlike ghosts trying to reconcile deeds of their life on Earth. The characters are not lost souls in this show.
“No, it’s a personification of humanity’s own terrible, evil nature turned on us,” Harrison clarifies. “This ‘House of Hell’ knows what makes us tick ‘cause it is made of what makes us tick.”
Misplaced and raw emotions, often disturbed and twisted, become sealed in the walls of the asylum. Then they become sentient, according to the playwright. “It has turned the hospital into a living beast itself . . . [and] takes shape in Jessica Farmer reveling in the role of evil brought to a human form—tempting, torturing and killing all who have the misfortune of entering her domain.”
Harrison originally planned for “In Sanity” to be completed and shown two years ago, actually as the second play in his “Madness Trilogy.” Though completed in 2015, he shelved it until Wesley Brown of Pineapple-Shaped Lamps asked Harrison to direct it as part of PSL’s 2018 season. Harrison was in the middle of auditioning for “TheaTerror” when Brown approached him.
“After writing it and directing, and all the stress of putting on a show,” he tells, “I wasn’t ready to go right back into the heat of it. . . . [but] if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Never doubt the power of the Pineapple.”
After wrapping his show in November, Harrison dusted off the script and got back to work—something he calls the real insanity of the process, balancing the close proximity between closing and opening a new show. He threw out roughly 80 percent of the first draft and began rewriting new characters, plot points, character arcs, a new spirit, and setting.
“It was daunting to think in three months, I’d have to audition for this show and I’m throwing out most of what I have,” Harrison recalls. “But I did—and for those next three months, it was life inside the Jarvis Thompson Home for the Mentally Un-Calm.”
He took it to the PSL writers’ room, each of whom offered notes on the script. It was a new process for Harrison to have his script workshopped. “But [I] found it to be very helpful.” he says. “From there we had what I think is a pretty tight tale of terror, by taking a new look at the old dark house in the neighborhood.”
The PSL production will be Harrison’s biggest show to date. It will be heightened in depth of character and story, but also in effects, from sound to visual. The team has been simpatico in their overall goal.
“Eddie Key has come onboard, who designed and built an outstanding funhouse of a set,” Harrison says. “The MVP of ‘TheaTerror,’ Nicole Horton, has come back to handle the galore of gore for the production.With them, mixed with the PSL team, this show has been amazing to work with and really strives to bring the artists work to stage.”