THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Stage Review

Creepy ‘Castle’ keeps its wits about it

Jenn Gambatese and Alexandra Socha in “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.’’ Jenn Gambatese and Alexandra Socha in “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.’’ (Joan Marcus)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / October 2, 2010

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NEW HAVEN — We all shuddered in high school English class when we came to the end of Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery’’ and discovered just what was at stake in that particular lottery, and, more broadly, what dark impulses can suddenly be unleashed in a bunch of folksy New Englanders.

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle,’’ a smart and arresting musical adaptation by Adam Bock and Todd Almond of a 1962 novel by Jackson, contains a similarly jolting moment when the small-town social masks come off, and the baser aspects of human nature, in all their ice-cold brutality, stand revealed.

What about the nobler attributes of our species, like our capacity for love? Well, that can be found in this “Castle,’’ but in a strange and obsessive form, and it, too, carries a lethal sting.

In directing this world premiere of “Castle’’ at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Anne Kauffman displays both imagination and restraint: the former in creating a creepily foreboding atmosphere, the latter in refraining from too-overt gothic touches that would move this musical into the neighborhood of campy melodrama.

A coolly uninflected tone is also a hallmark of the songs by Bock (whose play “The Thugs’’ won an Obie Award in 2007) and Almond. Though there are some bouncy exceptions (“The Stomp,’’ “She Didn’t Get Very Far’’), many of these tunes are the musical equivalent of Jackson’s poker-faced writing style, and are just as effective in sending a chill down the spine.

Set in Bennington, Vt., in 1958, “Castle’’ revolves around the relationship between the young Blackwood sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine (nicknamed Merricat). They live an isolated existence with their doddering, wheelchair-bound uncle Julian (Bill Buell) in the family manse, evocatively rendered by set designer David Zinn with deep-turquoise staircases and scaffolding that suggest a family living in perpetual twilight.

The trio is virtually all that’s left of the wealthy Blackwood family. What happened to the others? Well, it appears that they dropped dead at a family dinner a few years earlier after spooning sugar onto the raspberry dessert served to them by Constance (Jenn Gambatese). She was accused of putting arsenic in the sugar and tried for murder, but was acquitted. Gambatese’s adroit performance as the sweet-faced, ever-helpful Constance keeps us guessing: Did she do it, or didn’t she?

In any case, it’s suggested in “Gossip,’’ an early musical number by an ensemble of villagers, that the acquittal meant little in the proverbial court of public opinion. Lingering suspicion of (and fascination with) Constance mingles with the class envy felt by the townspeople, who have a longstanding resentment of the Blackwood family, their lavish house, their air of mystery, and the riches they are presumed to possess.

“They’re afraid of us,’’ the 18-year-old Merricat says with grim satisfaction. As played by Alexandra Socha, Merricat has an intriguing combination of watchfulness and apartness. Is she a Flannery O’Connor-esque bad seed, a Faulknerian wise child, something in between?

Whatever she is, Merricat is the only family member who ever ventures into town. She is passionately devoted to her big sister Constance, and she will do anything to protect her and their life together, even creating magical talismans out of family possessions — a book, some silver dollars.

Into this charged climate saunters the dashing and handsome Charles Blackwood (Sean Palmer), a long-lost cousin. To Merricat’s seething dismay, he soon wins Constance’s heart. Charles quickly makes it clear that however big the Blackwood house may be, it isn’t big enough for him and Merricat. The two of them face off in “I Know You,’’ a penetrating musical duel of mutual loathing that ends Act 1.

In Act 2, Kauffman, the director, skillfully captures the changed dynamic in the Blackwood household via the song “Come to Me.’’ As Constance sings the words of the title, Merricat rushes eagerly out of her bedroom, only to find that her sister is addressing her new lover.

The incendiary actions Merricat takes in response to her usurpation will have consequences beyond what she anticipates. Amid the fallout, we will get a good long look at the truth about Constance, Charles, Merricat, the townspeople, and (chilling thought, but one that I suspect Jackson would want us to have) maybe the rest of us.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE

Musical with book by Adam Bock, music by Todd Almond, lyrics by Bock and Almond. Based on the novel by Shirley Jackson.

Directed by: Anne Kauffman. Sets, David Zinn. Lights, Stephen Strawbridge. Costumes, Ilona Somogyi. Sound, Tony Smolenski IV.

At: Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, through Oct. 9. Tickets: $10-$85. 203-432-1234, www.yalerep.org