The mansion on the hill is disturbingly askew and the young girl who lives there has an unnerving self-possession. It’s all part of Shirley Jackson’s slyly menacing, next-to-abnormal world that she evokes in her 1962 novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” premiering as a musical at Yale Repertory Theater. Adam Bock, Todd Almond and helmer Anne Kauffman have succeeded in creating a stage fable of anxiety and glee, and while their show still needs work to deepen and further musicalize Jackson’s tale of small-town persecution and familial murder, even at this stage of development it’s a spellbinding tale to see and hear.
The production mixes the sweet with the deadly, not unlike the arsenic in the sugar bowl that wiped out most of the wealthy Blackwood family. Surviving are bad seed Merricat (Alexandra Socha), her hypersensitive older sister, Constance (Jenn Gambatese), and their mentally unraveling Uncle Julian (a darkly dotty Bill Buell), who is obsessed with that fateful last supper.
Into their well-ordered self-confinement comes their cousin Charles (Sean Palmer), who seeks forgiveness for abandoning the family in their time of need. His charm belies another agenda as he brings out Constance’s sexual yearning and, unknowingly, Merricat’s wicked ways.
Bock’s book captures Jackson’s eerie calm at the center of dread. Almond’s music captures the plaintive, as well as the playful, and perhaps fills in the emotional underpinnings that a 1966 play based on the novel, written by Hugh Wheeler and directed by Garson Kanin, failed to do. And Kauffman balances tension and humor while keeping the narrative and music flowing smoothly.
The actors are also fine. Socha beguiles with her first glint, conjuring a sense of other worldliness and privilege. Gambatese beautifully expresses fatefulness and longing, mixed with a touch of madness. Her repeated pleas to Charles of “come to me” are Philip Glass intense. You can understand the attraction, too, since Palmer brings a lot of sex appeal to Charles. His duet with Constance, “She Didn’t Get Very Far,” bursts with delightful improvisation.
But a re-enactment of the fateful dinner calls for some musical accents. And several of the songs feel unfulfilled or abbreviated, instead of offering more explored expressions of theme and character. Almond and Bock’s lyrics try to echo Jackson’s spare writing, but they too often come across as thin rather than precise or evocative.
Production and musical values (there’s a eight-piece band lurking behind the manse) are impressive. David Zinn’s vast skeletal set solves many — though not all — of the story’s challenges. While the design provides for a climactic fire and the home’s final diminishment (assisted by Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting), the mansion’s vast grounds and woods where Merricat finds a feral escape are too minimally suggested.
But this unsettling Gothic has a lot going for it and might yet emerge as a heady brew for a new age of anxiety.