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Stage Review: The Thin Place

The Thin Place offers an uncanny journey into the narrow realm separating Life and Death.

Subtle shivers are delivered with supernatural skill in The Thin Place, a dramatic meditation on belief in the afterlife, which lulls the audience into complacency with a pretense of skepticism before slowly tightening the screws on their unguarded nerves. Currently at the Atwater Village Theatre, the play offers an eerie descent into the uncanny realm described in the title, the “Thin Place” separating our world from what lies beyond – if anything.

The Thin Place Review: Narrative Gambits

The Thin Place starts off almost like an old-fashioned midnight spook show: upon entering the theatre, audience members are asked to write down the names of dearly departed loved ones which may be drawn from a hat later; soon, the lead character is addressing the room directly about her interest in contacting the dead. It seems as if we are going to participate in a live séance, but this opening turns out to be a trick, creating a direct, informal connection between the audience and the character, who relates her story as if in flashback, gradually pulling us into her world of belief.

Hilda (Caitlin Zambito) is a young, waifish lost soul, estranged from her mother, who mysteriously disappeared years ago. Is Mom dead or merely missing? The question gnaws at Hilda until she meets Linda (Janet Greaves), a medium who seems able to contact spirits. The two become friends, but Linda is reluctant to answer Hilda’s questions about her abilities, which should be no surprise to the audience because her spirit readings bear all the hallmarks of fakery: fishing for information with leading questions, dropping lines of inquiry that lead nowhere, and pursuing the ones that get positive responses.

Hilda (Caitlin Zambito) prods Linda (Janet Greaves) about being a medium.
Hilda (Caitlin Zambito) prods Linda (Janet Greaves) to discuss her psychic ability. Photo by OddDog Pictures

The play’s clever gambit here is settling the issue of Linda’s legitimacy almost immediately instead of basing the entire story around it. The focus becomes Hilda’s insistent belief in Linda regardless of whether or not she claims to truly contact the dead (a not unprecedented phenomenon when real-life mediums are debunked). This raises the question of whether spiritualism is beneficial even if faked; after all, what harm is there in telling a grieving widow that her dead husband loves her still?

The issue gets raked over the coals and takes on a political dimension in the second act, during a party with Linda’s friends, Jerry (Justin Huen) and Sylvia (Corbett Tuck). Jerry is a political consultant who has asked Linda to advise a candidate on how how to tell his audience what they want to hear – which is essentially what she does for a living. Suddenly, Linda’s vocation no longer seems so harmless, especially because Jerry insists the best way to manipulate a crowd is through fear. Sylvia (who is down-scaling her life style to donate more to the poor) objects, pointing out that Hitler also consulted a spiritualist for advice on manipulating his audience, drawing a loud rebuke from Linda, who objects that American are too prone to leap to cite Hitler to prove a point. (The lady doth protest too much, methinks.)

Thin Place theatre review
Hilda gets pushed to the background while Sylvia (Corbett Tuck) and Jerry (Justin Huen) argue the ethics of employing a medium to coach a politician. Photo by OddDog Pictures

Throughout this debate, Hilda, the newest member in this circle of friends, recedes into the background. This is another clever gambit, sidelining the main character as if the shy girl is unable to mount a defense of her belief in Linda’s alleged abilities. It seems as if the larger political context has rendered the existence of the Thin Place a moot point, but this turns out to be another stratagem to put the audience off guard. Eventually, Hilda retakes the spotlight by recounting the tale of her mother’s mysterious disappearance.

The Thin Place Review
Jerry, Sylvia, and Linda listen spellbound to Hilda’s eerie tale. Photo by OddDog Pictures

By this point, the play’s grounded sense of reality lulls the audience into believing Hilda’s lengthy monologue, which forms the climax of the play. The story she tells (essentially a ghost story, though whether ghosts or perhaps demons are involved is not certain) slowly pulls listeners into a liminal space – The Thin Place, if you will – where tantalizing suggestions provoke convincing if inchoate conclusions in the mind of the audience, creating what feels like contact with an unseen, incorporeal presence. Nothing is seen or even established with certainty – but the impact is nonetheless chilling – like shuddering when there is no breeze, as if instinctively reacting to something just beyond the senses.

The Thin Place Review: Conclusion
Atwater Theatre: The Thin Place Review
Hilda’s story ends with a phone call from a long-dead phone number – possibly a voice from beyond the grave? Photo by OddDog Pictures

Without shocks, scares, or screams, The Thin Place fills the theatre with a palpable aura of an intangible reality beyond our known world, generating a visceral response more subtle and profound than a traditional fright: a disquieting frisson that arises inside your soul as you come to your own conclusions about Hilda’s enigmatic story.

The modest production is perfectly calibrated to the material. The single, simple set (a few pieces of furniture with some wallpaper dangling from the small theatre’s rafters) creates a sense of intimacy by seating the audience on either side, making the action literally the center of attention.

As Hilda, Caitlin Zambito takes advantage of this, amplifying the personal connection when she addresses the audience directly; she evokes sympathy even when Hilda’s blind faith in Linda seems borderline demented. Janet Greaves evinces a dominating stage presence as Linda, alternately affectionate to Hilda and resentful of her fawning belief. Justin Huen and Corbett Tuck (as Jerry and Sylvia, respectively) add some shades to what are secondary characters. Jerry’s political machinations are clearly wrong, but he somehow never descends into being a cardboard villain; meanwhile, Sylvia’s do-gooder attitude seems ever so slightly the affectation of someone suffering from liberal guilt.

The staging is not showy, opting for a sense of commonplace reality which gradually segues into something more disturbing, climaxing with a nicely rendered trick near the end, which is utterly convincing even if one is anticipating it.

The script is sharp in terms of characterization and dialogue but slightly soft in its politics. The argument against using Linda’s manipulative techniques to advance a political agenda is clear, but the play politely declines to identify that agenda (there is a reference to one character’s unnamed political party, which allows the audience to mentally check whichever box it prefers). Presumably, Linda’s defensive objection to Sylvia’s Hitler reference is a hint about the leanings of the politician Jerry is helping; however, the only absolutely clear point is that gullibility makes people prone to manipulation, whether that gullibility manifests as belief in a politician or belief in a medium.

Political theme aside, The Thin Place provides an extremely satisfying payoff to its daring narrative gambits, even if those gambits do exact a price. Hilda’s early, almost confessional address to the audience nicely sets the tone for what follows, but it is not riveting on its own terms; it’s a tiny spark igniting a slow burn that takes a while to heat up. Also, the character at times comes across like a bit of a wallflower before seizing center stage near the conclusion.

In other words, attention-deficit viewers may lose patience. Fortunately, those willing to invest their attention will fall deeply under the spell and even feel as if they, too, are sliding into The Thin Place.

The Thin Place rating

Rating Scale

1 – Avoid
2 – Not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See

With eerie precision, The Thin Place slowly but surely evokes an unseen world beyond known reality, generating a sense of dread more disturbing than traditional jump-scares. The slow burn may burn too slowly for some, but it pays off in the end, even if the payoff is not a blazing explosion but an icy shiver.

Credits: Written by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Abigail Dreser. Presented by The Echo Theater Company, Chris Fields artistic director.

Cast: Janet Greaves (Linda), Justin Huen (Jerry), Corbett Tuck (Sylvia), Caitlin Zambito (Hilda).

The Thin Place runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through April 24. Update: The play has been extended through May 1, with performances at 8pm on Mondays, Fridays, Saturdays and at 4pm on Sundays. The address is 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039. There is free parking one block south of the theatre. Tickets are $34, with pay-what-want performances on Mondays. For more information call (310) 307-3753 or visit EchoTheaterCompany.com.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.