Pregnant women may be unsettled by “The Quickening,” the slow-burn ghost story on at Fells Point Corner Theatre through July 1. If they haven’t already watched, they’re probably avoiding the movie “Rosemary’s Baby,” which seems to have provided at least a little inspiration for the new play by Baltimore playwright Mark Scharf.
Mia Farrow’s character in the 1968 film was doomed from a violent conception, while very pregnant Beth, played by Amanda Spellman, in “The Quickening” has something similarly spooky but completely different to contend with in the final weeks of her pregnancy, after she and her husband move to a house on the site of a Civil War battlefield where more than 30 people died.
The play bridges the worlds of the living and the dead, and this afterlife is not populated by the fun, Casper-type ghosts. Adding to the eerie factor is where this Baltimore-grown story is being performed: Fells Point Corner Theatre is rumored to be haunted, informs Scharf, who was working the box office of the neighborhood playhouse at an opening weekend performance.
In May, ghost hunters from Dead of Night Paranormal Investigations set up two command centers at the 100-plus-year-old former fire house to measure for supernatural activity, Scharf says. An usher jumps in to say she saw orbs when the ghost hunters were there. Scharf says others have seen full-body manifestations at the theater and heard footsteps late at night when no one was in the building.
The Dead of Night group will share their findings after the June 16 performance of “The Quickening.”
Whether the theater itself is haunted or not, “The Quickening” is effective at raising heart rates by inserting sparks of the supernatural throughout and visits from an unwelcome interloper who is particularly interested in the status of the unborn baby.
An opening monologue raises the questions of what happens to your consciousness, your soul, when your body dies, and if it lives on, where does it live? These are queries Scharf has been toying with for at least the five years “The Quickening” has been in development. The play suggests that some souls linger, waiting for a new body to call their own.
The beginning of “The Quickening” is deliberately slow and ordinary. Married couple Beth and Matt Wells (David Shoemaker) have just moved to Richmond; boxes are still stacked around their house.
Their golden retriever, Taylor, has gotten out of the backyard, but neither seems too concerned about the disappearance. Matt is so unfazed that he leaves his pregnant wife to deal with it while he goes to a day-long Civil War re-enactment practice. Beth decides to fix herself some cereal before she attempts to find the family pet. She nonchalantly meets two neighbors who appear at her back door. Apparently, strangers in this Richmond development have something against knocking on the front door. But, for effect, it works in the show.
First up is a creeptastic mute boy whose eyes are hidden behind a mop of hair, and who disappears before Beth can open the glass French doors to give him some milk. The next, divorced mathematician Philomena (Phil), played by Debbie Bennett, brings double chocolate cookies.
We learn that Beth and Matt’s house was the last to sell in the development because it’s built on the site of a Civil War battle where not only soldiers were killed, but so was a 10-year-old boy, Samuel Brody.
Beth and Phil, a physicist who enjoys the “gray areas” of her field, leave to walk around the neighborhood looking for the dog. The house is empty. A picture frame jumps off the wall and shatters on the stage. Other weird things start to happen, with Beth being the only one to experience them. It is as if she is being singled out by a paranormal presence. With the arrival of her religious-folklore-enthusiast mom Rosemary, who’s traveled down from Hampden here in Baltimore, we learn that the about-to-give-birth Beth is most likely the target of the child ghost.
Occult-believing Rosemary, played by Marianne Gazzola Angelella, has a personal history with ghosts and a Catholic upbringing that explains what might be happening to her daughter. Rosemary’s telling of her brush with the paranormal as a child is a standout scene, with Angelella herself looking like a ghost dressed all in white and washed in an almost glowing spotlight. It sets the mood for the séance climax, which is another highlight of “The Quickening,” especially Patrick Gorirossi’s chilling performance as the 10-year-old Samuel Brody.
Director Ann Turiano creates a sense of ordinariness that make the jumps from the baseline that much more effective. The pulse of “The Quickening” speeds up in spurts thanks, also, to excellent lighting design by Tabetha White and sound design by Devyn Deguzman. The team creates transitions that glow red and evoke a sense of Civil War history with gunshot sounds, and add a layer of drama with startling thunderstorms and power outages.
While the paranormal moments are heart-pounding, the dialogue in “The Quickening” can be lulling at times. Shoemaker as the cargo shorts-wearing, mostly unsupportive Matt and Spellman’s everywoman Beth seem to have more of a roommate connection than a happy marriage, and not much happens in their scenes together.
Shoemaker wisely steers clear of making his southern, Bud-drinking Civil War re-enactor a racist caricature. Spellman shines in a major shift to deeply disturbed near the end of the show. But the pair’s uber-chill responses to their missing dog and Beth’s strange experiences in the new house are frustrating.
Girl, a mop-faced kid in 1800s garb at your back door is not normal. Do not offer him milk. Dude, comfort your wife. And both of you, go find your dog!
Angelella and Bennett create compelling points to the triangle of women in the story. Angelella, whose manufactured Balmer accent is distracting at times, confidently embodies a woman who has been in the presence of a ghost and has done something about it. Bennett offers scholarly delivery of Scharf’s philosophical ponderings about the soul.
While the first act can drag at times during conversations, the second act really picks up. It captivates when the three women are together, and when the entire ensemble is on stage for the culminating scene.
Scharf’s script and story are thought-provoking, and successful at presenting the idea that a new life may not necessarily be “new.” Just when you’re about to open your program to read the director’s note again, the play grabs your attention.
“The Quickening” runs at Fells Point Corner Theatre through July 1. For tickets and more information, visit fpct.org. The play is about 1 hour, 50 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.