The Theater@Boston Court’s latest show, Julia Cho’s “The Winchester House,” is an unfortunate case of an underdone work receiving a full production too early. The kernel of a play is there, and it works in fits and starts, but it almost never achieves the emotional gravitas sought. It’s all tell and little show, as if Cho didn’t trust her story and characters enough to simply let the situation speak for itself. Add some bad songs to the mix and listless direction by Chay Yew and you have 90 minutes of theater that feels far longer.
Structuring the show is the exploration of Via (Kimiko Gelman) into her past so as to understand the present. During her childhood, her mother (Dian Kobayashi) treated her more as a gossipy confidante than a daughter, and her well-meaning if distracted father (Nelson Mashita) was off in his own world.
For Via and her brother Ernest (Greg Watanabe), the main interest in their lives was their relationship with the adult Bergin family, John (Arye Gross) and Helen (Laura Wernette). Something happened between Via and John that severed the friendship between the families, and when a dying John contacts Via in the present day, the events of the past threaten to overwhelm her life.
Gelman, who is onstage for the entire play, valiantly carries the production on her shoulders — an impressive but largely thankless task. She’s comfortable talking to the audience, but there’s way too much of that and not enough of the characters talking to each other. Gelman is obviously a talented actor, exceptionally good in a scene in which she finally confronts John, her eyes darting back and forth like a trapped animal as she tries not to cry.
Gross makes an interesting and reasonable villain, rationalizing his actions under the guise of love, and the scenes between Via and John work so well that it’s unfortunate the play doesn’t focus more on this relationship.
Watanabe is amusing as the exasperated Ernest, but the other actors are in the show so little that they barely register.
Susan Gratch’s arrestingly cluttered set, a sort of mental attic filled with chairs and dresses and stools and such, makes a nicely symbolic backdrop for the action, and is used efficiently when the actors retrieve the set pieces for each scene from the tangle.
Jose Lopez’s lighting works particularly well in a scene where Via describes the titular house, and block after block of light, representing room after room, fills the stage.