Bottle Alley Theatre Company’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s final novel, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” is directed by Marian Kansas. The play, a gothic story about a family in isolation, is performed at the historic — and on a stormy opening night, atmospheric — Neill-Cochran House Museum.
Set six years after four members of the Blackwood family were poisoned at dinner, the play follows surviving sisters Merricat (Frances Garnett) and Constance Blackwood (Madison Laird), a shut-in.
At the play’s start, the audience is corralled into the Neill-Cochran’s large double parlor. Eighteen-year old Merricat Blackwood enters, narrating her journey through the village near her home. She completes errands while playing games in her head, and physically weaves through the audience members, who bunch together, attempting to make room for the play’s action.
In the village, Merricat’s interactions with grocers and townsfolk have a two-sided hostility. She is condescending and curt, while the villagers resent the Blackwood’s wealth and fear the family. Merricat was a child at the time of the murders, and Constance was tried and acquitted, but that hasn’t stopped local imaginations from running wild.
In a move more complicated than immersive, the audience then follows behind Merricat as she leaves the parlor and walks through the house museum to the room that serves as the Blackwood’s house, where audience seating is set up in a thrust arrangement around the playing space. Here, Cody R. Arn’s set design, which includes a dining set and a shabby kitchen area, contends with the museum’s current exhibition of contemporary fine art prints (“The Hope Suite” by Mark Smith), but strong performances make up for the distraction.
Even at her home, there’s something unsettling about Merricat. She throws tantrums, fantasizes about life on the moon, and buries objects around the estate as charms to ward off the changes she feels are coming. But Constance, who remains sweet while perpetually chiding her sister, is almost ready to return to society. She tends to aging Uncle Julian (Todd Clark), who, paralyzed by the poisoning, spends every day analyzing his notes, trying to solve the crime despite his fallible memory. He’s 44 chapters into writing a book about it, in which he is charmingly willing to divert from the truth. The three make a loving family despite the shadow of murder in their past.
When the Blackwood’s cousin Charles (Brennan Patrick) arrives for a visit, the sisters have opposite reactions. Constance is easily charmed while Merricat is convinced he’s a ghost and wants him out. Although he claims to be there to help them, he’s suspiciously over interested in their money, and tries to enforce restrictions on Merricat. The extreme height difference between the two actors reinforces the power dynamic as Merricat and Charles trade threats. Proxy battles between the two escalate until a fire breaks out, forcing family secrets to light.
In the chaos, the villagers who arrive to fight the fire turn violent, demonstrating just how easily good intentions can give way to fear and mob mentality. But later, they return offering sincere apologies, and prove themselves no worse than most people.
Nevertheless, the traumatized sisters redouble their seclusion. When Charles returns, Constance sees him for the threat to their lives that he is, and replicates the poisoning from six years earlier. In a dramatic physical performance, Charles dies an elaborate, extended death, lurching aggressively toward Merricat, and then writhing on the ground. The sisters’ compelling and believable reactions keep this potentially comedic moment grounded in the play’s drama.
Constance and Merricat reaffirm their love for each other again and again in the long second act as they reorder their home and lives. The sisters’ strong bond makes it easy to root for them despite the twisted nature of the Blackwood family.
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” continues through Nov. 13. For tickets and information see bottlealleytheatre.com