Do you believe in ghosts? In Lucas Hnath’s play The Thin Place, at the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet through Sept. 3, that question is equated with a theatergoer’s suspension of disbelief, the inner switch people have that allows them to accept what’s happening onstage as real, even though they know it’s just play-acting.
The title of The Thin Place refers to a border between the world as we know it and the afterlife of spirits — that location where the two bump up against each other. In the play, a woman, Hilda, played to crystalline perfection by Harbor Stage cofounder Stacy Fischer, is seeking to contact her departed grandmother, who had inculcated in Hilda as a young girl an extrasensory connection between them that she’d hoped would continue after her death.
As a result, Hilda consults with Linda, a British-born psychic who specializes in contact with the dead, about communicating with her grandmother. D’Arcy Dersham, who plays Linda, is a fascinating foil to the earnest and somewhat withdrawn Hilda. Linda is earthy and forthright, not hiding the fact that the voices that come out of her are made up out of nowhere, fulfilling her desire to offer people what they want to hear. She’s merely holding up her end of the deal.
It’s not that Linda doesn’t believe in the spirit world. Instead, she recognizes that people are capable of creating their own reality, often blurring the objective world before them in order to do it. This is true of ordinary people, not just the unhinged, and the emotional context for this spiritual communication plays an important role.
That context is given an extraordinary boost by director Jeff Zinn, the former head of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater — and the pared-down set by Joe Kenehan and brilliant lighting design of John R. Malinowski. The play originally premiered at the 2019 Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky. and opened off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons that December. The cast of The Thin Place includes Harbor Stage cofounders Brenda Withers and Robert Kropf as friends and supporters of Linda at a celebratory event
Hilda and Linda start out sitting on a blacked-out stage with two chairs and a side table between them on a Persian rug. The bright, limited lighting sharpens our focus, but near the end, when the brightness is withdrawn and replaced with the barest hint of illumination, we travel as an audience to that “thin” place where imagination mingles with perception.
In the play and the Harbor Stage production, there is little use of what friends of mine in publishing used to call the “woo-woo” factor, after the eerie sound of a theremin in cheesy horror or sci-fi movies. Spiritual thinking arises naturally out of this minimalist approach, with the expert help of Hnath’s trenchant and deceptively simple writing.
The play is framed by two stories told by Hilda directly to the audience as witnesses, one in the beginning about her nurturing grandmother and a longer one at the end about her mentally unbalanced mother. Fischer’s delivery at these moments is masterful. With a spareness of inflection ranging from weary strain to mild amusement, she makes the otherworldly seem utterly normal.
That is exactly what great plays can do. The middle part of The Thin Place, set in the home of Sylvia, the character played by Withers, is a bit of a break from Hilda’s storytelling and its intense theatrical focus. It is here that Linda, while being fêted, faces doubts about her psychic reliability and moral relevance. Sylvia, who has been to Norway and admires how that nation has put ethical principles of governance into practice, spars with Linda about the value of her work.
The issues are not resolved. They don’t have to be. Contrary perceptions can both be true. When things get ambiguous or paradoxical, an artist’s truth can get in between. And that’s what Hnath’s play — and the Harbor Stage’s marvelous production — has accomplished. With this artist-run company’s last show of the season, it has outdone itself.
The event: The Thin Place, by Lucas Hnath
The time: Through Sept. 3, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 5 p.m.; no show Aug. 25
The place: Harbor Stage Company, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet
The cost: $25; pay what you can on Friday, Aug. 18