The historic Campbell House is creaking open its doors for another seasonal romp. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, this production – like the Netflix series bringing some of Poe’s collected works to a new medium this spooky season – centers around the ill-fated House of Usher. Audience members are welcomed as mourners for Madeline Usher, whose mysterious death is just the start of an ordeal that consumes the family and their unfortunate servants as her memory and spirit linger on.
Like fellow Campbell House hit A Christmas Carol by Three Ships Collective, White Mills Theatre Co. embraces the charms and limits of the setting. Patrons get a tour as part of smaller groups that take their own route through this saga while avoiding the issues of dragging around a full house. The Ushers’ house staff, under the weary and critical eye of housekeeper Mrs Rupert (Barb Scheffler), shepherd their audiences between stories as their own role in the larger plot unfolds and we learn how grotesque – if not arabesque – our fellow ‘guests’ at this funeral are.
This is a clever way to tie these episodes together but the structure can only do so much. Early hesitation over lines and lag in transitions break the immersion a little and the script’s wide scope is a challenge. Some threads of the main plot feel like distractions in an ambitious script while other scenes are strong but don’t get the attention they deserve amid all the family drama. The musical side of this horror opera includes live instrumentation which is hard to incorporate fully given the logistical hurdles.
Enough scenes and performers shine when allowed that the overall effort succeeds. Scheffler ties it all together as host, matron, and conspirator while Spencer Schunk’s wonderfully deranged Roderick Usher brings the family’s curse to life as he withers on his deathbed. Bring warm gloves and enjoy the scenery.