A blinding snowstorm overtakes the mountains of Oregon. A car swerves into a tree to avoid a deer that appears out of nowhere. An injured young couple seeks help at the door of an isolated cabin.
This setup in the early moments of “Grey House” may sound like a familiar trope, especially to horror fans. To the credit of playwright Levi Holloway, his characters are aware, too. Hobbling into the darkened, unlocked house with a gash on his forehead and a likely broken ankle, Henry (Travis A. Knight) says, “I’ve seen this movie.”
That’s after his wife, Max (Sadieh Rifai), has discovered the telephone’s cord has been cut. (Holloway sets his play in 1977, possibly just to avoid the problems that modern technology like cell phones pose to the genre.) How, Max asks him, does the movie turn out? “Baby, we’re not going to make it,” Henry responds with a grin.
When: Through Dec. 1
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells
Run time: 1 hour 40 minutes, with no intermission
Of course, we’re already primed to think his joke isn’t so funny. Before Henry and Max’s arrival, we’ve been briefly introduced to some of the house’s residents: a collection of children with dirty faces, old-timey clothes, and a preternaturally creepy air.
The kids (who are played by a mix of child and young adult actors) introduce a woman named Raleigh (Kirsten Fitzgerald) as their guardian, but she comes across more like an indentured servant than the grown-up in charge. The children — particularly the hard-faced ringleader Marlow (Sarah Cartwright) — are clearly running the show.
Marlow introduces herself to Max while holding a stubby, rusty-looking knife. “Don’t worry,” she says, in a tone that suggests Max absolutely should worry. “It would take far too long to kill you with this knife. It’s so short.”
In the first hint that Max is somehow better prepared for whatever this situation is than most of us would be, she’s quick to retort: “You could always go for the throat.”
“Ah, yes, the throat,” replies Marlow with a hint of a smile. “I suppose that would do it.”
As Raleigh insists that Henry and Max be their guests until the blizzard subsides, we get to know the rest of the children a little better. Bernie (Kayla Casiano) seems to exhibit signs of telekinesis; she is also deaf and communicates in American Sign Language, which it turns out Max knows a little thanks to a long-deceased sister.
A giggly older girl (Haley Bolithon) gives her name as “A1656;” Marlow ominously insists that Max should know why she’s called that. The possibly semi-feral Squirrel (Autumn Hlava) echoes Henry’s words as he’s speaking them, and sometimes goes inside the house’s walls to scratch and tap out messages to her sisters in Morse code. The lone boy (Charlie Herman) is referred to simply as “the boy,” apart from one moment in which Marlow reels off a long list of names he might sometimes go by.
The girls engage in strange child’s-play rituals and games: There are disconcerting, close-harmony sing-alongs of tunes written from a child’s point-of-view (I clocked “Stella,” by the all-female folk trio Mountain Man, as well as the Bobbie Gentry oddity “Reunion”). At one point they engage Max in a macabre game called “Show and Hell,” in which she must own up to times she’s hurt herself and others.
Henry, meanwhile, keeps dipping into the jars of what Raleigh calls “moonshine,” each of which is labeled with a man’s name and a year: Abner, 1971. The more he drinks, the more he gets pulled into hallucinatory scenarios that reminded me of Jack Torrance’s arc in “The Shining.”
Without giving away too much more, there are a lot of ideas packed into Holloway’s script, and I can’t say they fully cohere in A Red Orchid’s production. I left the theater with more questions about the world Holloway’s building than answers.
The upshot, though, is that I genuinely care about those questions. That’s in large part thanks to Shade Murray’s effectively unnerving staging, which maintains the overall mood of dismay while glossing over some of the narrative speed bumps.
And Murray’s fully committed ensemble cast sells every moment, creating a proper atmosphere of dread with a minimum of gore (apart from one gloriously stomach-turning special effect near the play’s end). I didn’t fully buy in to Holloway’s mythmaking on first viewing. But it’s a testament to its potential that I was immediately ready to go back and give “Grey House” a second try.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.