As “Raree” rolls along, a question inevitably occurs to the viewer: What good are ghosts if they don’t scare you? This world premiere at Theatre/Theater defines itself as a “ghostly mystery driven by dread and desire,” but there’s no dread in the air, characters rarely give off sexual heat, and the muddled situations stifle excitement and suspense. It’s a talky boo-ha-ha that initially echoes Henry James and then becomes a stilted study of three dysfunctional sisters from 1747 Philadelphia who struggle and fail to find love.
For a short while, the script by KC Davis promises cohesion when Davis introduces girlishly romantic Faith (Krista K. Carpenter), described as a woman with “too much imagination and no common sense.” Despite snide, cynical putdowns by her sister Hope (Samantha Montgomery), Faith expects London poet Richard Savage (Kelly Boulware) to arrive and prove the answer to her dreams.
Much attention is given to Faith’s eager anxiety, so it’s disconcerting when Savage makes a drunken entrance and collapses. After he awakens, the emphasis has shifted to his long, rambling conversation with Irish maid Megan (Jenni Kirk). By the time Faith returns, her relationship with the inebriated Savage is of little interest, and the plot disintegrates into a variety of vignettes without any firm focus.
Since Faith and her sister Hope never deepen and develop as characters, it falls to the third sibling, Charity (Heather De Sisto) to churn up some power and drive. De Sisto is an accomplished, take-charge actress. The script is filled with flowery, ornate dialogue (“Time travels on a tireless horse”… “If I were a painter, I would paint myself blue”… “I just rub the fat of boiled babies all over me”). De Sisto plunges past windy exposition and periodically spikes the story with tension. Unlike her co-stars, she offers a plausible period accent and wears Angel Terrazas’ costumes with flair.
Boulware, portraying a poet who may or may not be a ghost, cuts a physically impressive figure, but his line readings are frequently incomprehensible. Kirk’s Megan credits him with opening her eyes to the beauty of poetry. Since he never remotely suggests a Robert Browning, a Keats or a Heathcliff, the tribute falls flat.
The best way to take “Raree” is to forget about fathoming characters and situations and enjoy scattered, well-directed sequences. Thomas Craig Elliott stages an absorbing clash between De Sisto’s grim-faced Charity and her minister husband Joshua (Ira Steck). Steck is rigid and logically chauvinistic for the 18th century, yet he persuasively projects the frustration of a husband who genuinely longs to connect with his wife and can’t figure out how to reach her. Like many other subplots in the show, this one holds potential for dramatic growth and never fulfills its potential.
Of all the characters, only one — a dead soldier (Matt Saunders) who comes back to claim the missing tooth torn from his mouth by Megan in the opening scene — gives “Raree” the right to be regarded as a legitimate entry in the ghost genre. Saunders grippingly communicates the despair of premature death. When he eats and indicates dissatisfaction because his food has no taste, the loss of sensual pleasures after dying is acutely and painfully conveyed.
Meg Taylor’s ominous, creaky sound contributions are helpful, but such visual gothic touches as a severed hand and bleeding lips remain incidental and don’t add a sense of horror. The production’s climax is particularly cryptic and unsatisfying. Megan’s remark, “There are too many words in the world” provides an accurate summary of a play that wanders off in multiple directions and never establishes a clear, central storyline.