Such gothic elements as a dead bat in the closet, a basement filled with caged mice and vials of smallpox and bubonic plague serum set the stage for a hair-raising horror story. Writer Marisa Wegrzyn moves along in that gruesomely gripping mode, aided by magnetic portrayals from Shannon Nelson and Sasha Harris, only to drop the ball with a wordy, expositional drama about female bonding.
The work of critically applauded production company Lucid by Proxy, a group of actors who have presented 10 world- premiere plays since 2000, “Psalms of a Questionable Nature” creates a chilling mood as two hostile women enter a claustrophobic basement (the wonderfully macabre set by Chris Hansen).
The seemingly psychotic Moo (Nelson) informs stepsister Greta (Harris) that their recently deceased parents were into “strange stuff.” It turns out Mom and Dad were indeed weirdos who enjoyed collecting and preserving vials of deadly disease serum.
In the course of the tale, Moo reveals that she used to watch her parents make love (“People shouldn’t stick things into other people”) and assisted her father when he worked in a slaughterhouse. Wild-eyed Moo admits she killed her folks, at their request, when they became fatally ill handling envelopes that contained lethal powder.
Greta, who needs money and plans to sell the family home, is traumatized by this knowledge, and expectations are raised that Moo, who doesn’t want the house sold, will kill her sister.
The ironic use of a Sinatra record, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” provides ominous foreshadowing, and suspense increases with the revelation that Greta served a four-year prison sentence for attempting to murder her child.
Lighting by Hansen and David Nett heightens the ghoulish atmosphere, often trapping spectators in total darkness and intensifying a sense of palm-sweating nervousness.
The play weakens considerably when Greta leaves and then inexplicably comes back out of compassion for a sister who, as written, appears extremely dangerous. Moo even utters a line, “I don’t want to kill you,” yet suddenly Greta launches into a lengthy monologue about a love affair that injured her when she was pregnant, and the plot abandons horror in favor of a soapy saga about sisters who belatedly discover a need for each other.
The jolting replacement of one genre for another almost but never quite wrecks the play, because Nelson’s portrait of the disturbed Moo is a spellbinding blend of loneliness, confusion and childlike terror. Humphrey Bogart once said the best acting is simply listening, so that audiences can read the mind of the character even when he or she is silent, and Nelson supplies a definitive example of this skill. She sits with rapt attention as her sister speaks, and it’s easy to see every desperate emotion.
Nelson has one scene in which she coughs and retches violently from the sickness destroying her, and she seems to shatter into pieces. Rugged to watch, it’s frighteningly, repulsively real.
Although the character of Greta doesn’t offer such showy opportunities, Harris carefully builds her reactions, from cool disdain to growing shock at her demented parental history. She invites sympathy when the house buyers she counted on change their minds and makes her panic palpable while worrying that she might contract a lethal illness.
In view of Moo’s insanely erratic behavior, it’s difficult for an actress to make Greta’s sisterly switch from rejection to acceptance entirely convincing, and Harris surmounts this problem with a subdued, tentative transition, rather than expressing effusive emotion.
Wegrzyn has a marked flair for creating psychological thrillers, the kind that would translate into TV movies and feature films, and “Psalms” can compete in that arena if reworked to follow through on its own grotesque, grisly premises.