‘The Haunting of Hill House’ delivers insidious, subtle terror this Halloween

Hill House itself becomes a sinister character in The Little Theatre of Alexandria's production.

The Little Theatre of Alexandria presents The Haunting of Hill House, inspired by the novel by Shirley Jackson and adapted for the stage by F. Andrew Leslie. Maggie Mumford directs a talented ensemble for this chilling tale, choosing to welcome the frightful season with gradual, whispery mind games instead of the brash violence and brutality that our generation has come to expect from this genre. I find psychological fear much more interesting (and scary!) than shocking gore and jump-scares, so this show was perfectly suited for my tastes. However, not everyone in the audience felt this way.

Kathy Ohlhaber (Theodora), Shannon Labadie (Eleanor), and James Murphy (Luke) in 'The Haunting of Hill House.' Photo by Matt Liptak.
Kathy Ohlhaber (Theodora), Shannon Labadie (Eleanor), and James Murphy (Luke) in ‘The Haunting of Hill House.’ Photo by Matt Liptak.

An extensive technical crew transforms the stage into a character itself–Hill House, a desolate, deserted mansion with a sinister reputation. Designers Ken Brown and Peter Mumford show us the parlor and small bedroom; furnished with intimidating, dated pieces and decorated in deep, uninviting colors. When one of the characters refers to the place as a “stately pile,” it’s easy to agree. Sound Designer Janice Rivera and Lighting Designers Jeffrey Scott Auerbach and Kimberly Crago (JK Lighting Design) use appropriate cues to help complete the grim atmosphere.

Dr. Montague (a steady, solid performance by Bruce Alan Rauscher) has leased the Hill House for the summer, so that he may observe and report any paranormal activity. He’s hand-picked some guests to join him; heir-to-the-estate Luke (James Murphy), a woman with notable extrasensory perception named Theodora (Kathy Ohlhaber), and Eleanor (Shannon Labadie), a fragile, meek woman who has had experiences as a child that can’t be explained logically. The group mocks the house, despite Dr. Montague sharing its long history of murders, suicides, and other hauntings. However, disturbing things begin to happen, and the characters become frightened as the house begins to influence (and overtake) their very psyches. To stay sane, they must be stronger than the traumas the house has brought upon them (or has it?).

I enjoyed the acting, particularly Kathy Ohlhaber as Theodora, whose brazen, direct persona proves the perfect foil to Eleanor’s kind, but timid, disposition. Shannon Labadie does a fine job with Eleanor, though she does face the tough task of projecting Eleanor’s voice clearly and loudly to the audience while also being soft-spoken. Costume designers Jean Schlicting and Kit Sibley highlight this dynamic well, dressing Eleanor in bland, conservative outfits while Theodora strides confidently across the stage in bold red heels and a matching, jaunty scarf. Kirk Lambert and Patricia Nicklin join the commotion later on as Arthur Parker and Mrs. Montague, a theatrical pair who flout Dr. Montague’s rule of strict observation and decide to communicate with the house directly (big mistake). Danielle Taylor brings some comedic relief as Mrs. Dudley, Hill House’s blunt, unyielding caretaker who insists on leaving the property before nightfall. Her sharp, obstinate demeanor, and the guests’ reaction to it, get many laughs from the audience.

The Haunting of Hill House unfolds with a mounting fear; insidious and subtle, its chill creeps into your skin without much notice, until you suddenly realize how scared you actually are. Driven mainly by dialogue, the focus is mainly centered on terror within the human psyche itself, rather than tangible paranormal beings or activity. This type of terror is effective and interesting, but it’s not for everyone. Many audience members were engrossed, and most likely left inspired with many topics of conversation, eager to dissect its deeper layers of meaning and metaphors. However, there were some who had obviously hoped to be truly frightened in the moment, and the play’s lack of jump-scares and dramatic action left them a bit disappointed (there are some truly jolting moments, but not many). Those who crave action-packed spectacles (more horror, less terror) may want to skip this one.

The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s The Haunting of Hill House is a bit of a polarizing show. Whether you love or hate it, you are guaranteed to walk away with a strong opinion.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Haunting of Hill House plays through November 9, 2019, at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA. To purchase tickets, call the Box Office at 703-683-0496 or order them online.


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