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A séance relies on illusion. So does theater
Randy Danson, left, and Emily Cass McDonnell in “The Thin Place” at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan on Nov. 21, 2019. “The Thin Place,” directed by Les Waters, joins Alexis Scheer’s “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” in putting spiritualism onstage. Richard Termine/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Listen. Just listen. Not with your ears, but with the part behind and a little above your eyes.

These are the instructions that Hilda (Emily Cass McDonnell) issues in the opening moments of Lucas Hnath’s “The Thin Place,” a drama and occasional skin-crawler about a young woman trained by her grandmother in extrasensory perception.

When Hilda was a girl, she tells us, she and her grandmother would play a game. They would sit across from each other, and her grandmother would “send” her a word. Hilda would open her third eye, just behind and a little above the other two, and somehow she would hear it. The game continued even after her grandmother died. Late in the show, which I saw on a weeknight, just before Christmas, Hilda played it with us.

I’m sure everyone in that audience recognized Hnath’s play as an elegant fiction and telepathy as fake. But in that Playwrights Horizons theater, as I vise-gripped my date’s arm, I was astonished by the sound — or really, the absence of sound — of roughly 100 people, breath held, just … listening.

“The Thin Place,” directed by Les Waters, joins Alexis Scheer’s “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” — and maybe, if you squint, “A Christmas Carol” — in putting spiritualism onstage. Spiritualism developed as a movement in the mid-19th century and peaked among the late Victorians, with another surge just after World War I. Its adherents (of which there are still quite a few) believe that the dead can communicate with the living, usually through a medium, typically a woman, who can liaise between worlds. It proposes that if the living sit together, usually in a dark room, we will see and hear things that aren’t really there — religion as theater.

So why are plays about spiritualism somewhat rare? And when we do sit together in the dark, just what are we hoping to hear and to see?

In “The Thin Place,” Hilda hopes to solve a family mystery. She falls in with Linda (Randy Danson), a professional medium. Hilda’s enthusiasm unsettles Linda, who tries to explain that her work isn’t precisely real, at least not in the way that Hilda believes. “You do realize don’t you that what I do is sort of a trick, right?” Linda says. But tricks don’t explain Hilda’s uncanny experiences, first with her grandmother and then with her mother.

In “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord,” a comedy until it isn’t, four teenage girls, turned on by proximity to power, try to conjure the spirit of Pablo Escobar with Ouija boards and incantations borrowed from Candomblé and Santería. What’s a little blood sacrifice if it gets you some face time with a sexy narco-terrorist?

In “A Christmas Carol,” the Charles Dickens tale as reimagined by Jack Thorne, Scrooge never attends a séance, but spirits visit him all the same.

This winter aside, spiritualism has a limited stage history. There’s Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” last seen on Broadway a decade ago and starring a Titian-haired Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, a dizzy medium who accidentally summons a writer’s deceased wife. Plus a Yeats one-act, a play by Frank Carney, S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk.” “Blithe Spirit,” which makes a gentle joke of spiritualism, is a repertory staple. But the others, which take spirits more seriously, are rarely revived.

I asked Whitney White, who directs “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord,” what makes spiritualism difficult to stage. She blamed audience skepticism. “It’s funny,” she said, “you can’t go five minutes in Manhattan without passing a psychic. But we’re living in a time where it’s really hard to believe in miracles, it’s hard to have faith in anything.”

But if theatergoers don’t believe in spiritualism, spiritualism believes in theater. Successful mediums knew how to put on a show. In the 19th century, public séances, which were sometimes held in theaters, attracting thousands, relied on stage techniques — lighting, sound, stagehands, improvisation — to achieve their effects. Ectoplasm? Any half-decent props mistress could manage it with some egg whites and cheese cloth.

A couple of current shows ease this tension between illusion and reality, debunking themselves. In “The Sorceress,” an 1870s operetta revived by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, Romanian villagers fear a witch, Bobe Yakhne. But her gifts are psychological, not supernatural. “You still have the notion that I make magic?” she tells a friend. “That I stick a knife in the ground and make magic? I only do that to cheat money out of the fools that believe in such things.”

And the illusionist Derren Brown begins “Derren Brown: Secret” with a disclaimer that he relies on magic, psychology “and the power of the perfectly placed lie,” rather than any mystical aid.

But “The Thin Place,” “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” and “A Christmas Carol” use theatrical devices — subtle and sometimes dramatic shifts in lighting, a startling sound or a startling silence — to suggest access to other worlds. In “The Thin Place,” Waters exploits design elements to disorientate the audience. “Gradually, handholds on reality — well, whatever reality is — are removed during the course of the show,” he said.

Waters actually inspired “The Thin Place,” years ago and by accident, when he mentioned to Hnath how his maternal grandmother believed in “thin places” — where the boundaries between our world and others went blurry. Waters believed in them as a kid. But not now. “Not remotely,” he said. “I’m a very committed atheist. I believe in facts.”

I believe in facts, too. But as a teenager — bored, lonely, with a vague taste for the occult — I read tarot cards and messed around with Ouija boards, mortified when the planchette would glide toward some crush’s name. (The ideomotor effect: It’s real.) I never tried to summon Pablo Escobar, but I did play Hilda’s game. I can remember riding home on the school bus and leaning over a vinyl-coated seat to “send” a word to a friend.

“Volcano,” I would think. “Volcano. Volcano.”

“Shoes?” she would say.

I never found my third eye.

Theater was my other adolescent obsession, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, its overlaps with the occult now seem obvious — each a move toward a world that wasn’t my own, each an attempted escape. If I had to guess why spiritualism makes such rare appearances in the theater, I would suggest it’s because each makes the other look like a fraud. Theater exposes spiritualism’s artifice, spiritualism lays bare theater’s attempts to persuade and enthrall an audience. It makes sense that Harry Houdini became the foremost debunker of the spiritualist con. It takes an illusionist to catch an illusionist.

I haven’t touched a Ouija board since college. And I haven’t tried thought transference — Hilda’s game — since high school. But clearly I still go to the theater. It’s a con I love, and one I can live with. Theater as religion? Maybe. On most nights, crammed into my seat, fumbling with program and notebook and pen, I am hoping that if I listen — just listen — another world will open itself before me.

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