A horror lived daily haunts deeper than any ghost could. Hinter by Chicago playwright Calamity West starts with a bang and leaves you on the edge of your seat the whole time, as you’re privy to the details of one of Germany’s most famous unsolved mysteries- the Hinterkaifeck murders. West’s play at Steep Theatre, directed by Brad DeFabo Akin, centers on this gruesome set of murders in the WWI-era Bavarian countryside and takes you inside the lives of the victims and the people that were closest to them.
We enter the story on the night of the slayings, while the danger is still very present. The recently hired maid, Maria Baumgartner, enters the house knowing something is wrong, and scrambles to find Ilse, the youngest. Eerie noises are heard from backstage. Eventually, she goes up to find her. She never comes back down. The rest of the first act deals mostly with the aftermath. We’re introduced to two of the play’s main characters- the widow from the neighboring farm, Frieda Richter, played to great effect by Lauren Sivak, and farm hand and friend to the Gruber family, Klara Muller, played by Sigrid Sutter. These are the women who come to the farm–they haven’t seen the family in some time–and discover the grisly murders. The chemistry between Sivak and Sutter is fantastic in the opening scenes, with their semi-cross banter as they attempt to enter the house and then figure out what to do next, suggesting friendship and camaraderie. Soon Frieda is off to Munich to alert the authorities and Klara, who was closer to the family, is off in search of the former maid, Elizabeth (Sasha Smith), who’d recently quit because she feared the house was haunted.
Elizabeth is an assertive, effervescent sort and her arrival at the farmhouse brings a new dynamic. She’s been brought to the house under false pretenses, only told that the family is missing, as Klara figured she wouldn’t come knowing the truth. She dotes on Klara, and plays games with another neighbor, and one of the few men in the village, Lorenz Schlittenbauer, who’s off-putting and a little off in general after his return from the war. Just off set, though, are the bodies, and when Lorenz and Elizabeth can’t ignore the smell any more, and the barn animals escape, Klara can’t keep cover any more and the truth is discovered.
As the play progresses, like any good murder mystery, more is revealed, piecemeal. The women, while originally a united front, each seem to know something they won’t share with the others, and Frieda in particular acts suspiciously. Soon the inspector from Munich, played by Peter Moore, arrives on the scene. Moore plays him perfectly–full of himself, slightly clueless and overly distracted by the “quaint country life.” He brings a gravity to some scenes but also provides comic relief to an otherwise tense play, as well as beginning to lay out one of the themes in West’s tragic narrative. Moore is intent on listening to the semi-crazed conjectures of Lorenz (played by Nate Whelden) but misses important details, even making light of them as they’re put forth by the women who were on the scene first and knew the family best. We start to see a picture unfold, and it’s a dark one. The women of the household, eldest to young child, and perhaps even farm hands, have been playthings for the sick, twisted man of the house, Andres. The family is isolated by his abuse and the shameful secrets they’ve had to keep. Each woman has had to live with this in their own way, and we find that the secrets they kept from each other were only to protect one another. When questioning Elizabeth about her belief that the house was haunted, Frieda Richter asks, “Can a living man haunt you?” To which Elizabeth quickly, confidently replies “Oh yes. They definitely can.”
The second act brings the family back to life and we see the constant hushed terror of these women’s everyday lives. Perhaps none are so persecuted and consistently under the thumb of Andres as Viktoria. It’s in the second act that Eunice Woods really shines. All you need to know about her character you can gather wordlessly. Viktoria is a survivor, and though oppressed at every turn, she is smart, confident and reaching for something outside her situation. She is compassionate to the mother (Cazillia, played by Melissa Riemer) who couldn’t find the bravery to leave, protective of her daughter, and kind to the women around her–from the maids (current and past) to the farm hand, Klara. Even as they try to help her, she tries to give of herself to them. In sharp contrast to Viktoria is Aurora Adachi Winter’s Maria Baumgartner. The new maid is somehow even more bubbly and effervescent than Elizabeth was, and when she first appears on the scene, her cheerful, almost irritatingly flippant, nature almost pulls you out of the narrative, though this may be by design, as Maria at this point has yet to suffer under the hand of Andres.
Another fantastic performance in the second half is that of Jim Poole as Andres. It would be easy to let Andres be a caricature, which would serve to undermine the insidiousness of his predatory nature, but Poole never does that. Instead, he’s quite believable, with an at times childlike manner married with the low growl of someone who preys on others. He’s persistent in his slow torture, delighting in hinting at the perverse things he’ll likely pursue later. By the time we see him wrench Viktoria’s face violently towards him and demand her attention, we forget we’re merely watching a play–the tension is so absolute and palpable.
So much of what’s great about Hinter is in the reality of the situation. It may be Bavaria in the early 1900s but these women we meet could be any of us. Add to this the absolutely immaculate set design by Lauren Nigri and we feel like we’ve just somehow gotten a window into the past. The farmhouse, with its windows and simple dressings, is perfect for the action of the play–the central table the natural place for these things to play out. Adding to the dramatic tension is the lighting by light designer Pete Dully. Sunshine streams through windows, signifying the end of a long and horrifying night. Candlelight flickers. Darkness and light become almost a character in the drama. I found myself searching the program to find out just who’d mastered this so beautifully. If there was a complaint about incidentals it would simply be that the interstitial audio was jarringly loud, but even as I mention that I find that it wasn’t too troublesome.
Hinter is one of the best plays I’ve seen in the past year. It’s incredibly impactful, with dynamic characters that don’t need to tell you who they are with words. The mystery is so compelling as to make you wish there wasn’t an intermission so you can find out more about what happened and why, and the set and lighting transport you to another place fully and effortlessly. It’s worth your time to head to Steep Theatre and catch Hinter during its world premiere run.
Hinter runs at Steep Theatre, 1115 W Berwyn Ave., through March 3, with performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is two hours. For more information on the play and to purchase tickets, click here.