Review: Theater Wit’s Mordant Dramedy Household Spirits Mixes Good Acting With a Convoluted Story

A ghost story requires that one suspends belief. Having grown up Catholic, I know all about suspending belief just from memorizing the Baltimore Catechism when purgatory was a real threat. Playwright Mia McCullough's Household Spirits has traditions from Judaism and Christianity in its story of mental illness, the definition of family, and a haunting. There is also alcoholism, ambition, and youthful angst. It is quite the stew and perhaps too many things in one pot. This show is directed by Eileen Tull who was tasked with keeping all of the elements blended. Tull had a herculean task and mostly succeeded.

Household Spirits takes place in an upper-middle-class suburban home in a holiday season with Christmas and Hannukah converging. All of the action takes place in a well-appointed kitchen open to the family room and a scary pantry that appears to have been partially burned. Erik (Nathan Hile) is slouched at the kitchen island wearing earbuds and playing on his phone. Hile successfully portrays a teen who feels that everyone is watching to see if he inherited his mother's mental illness.

Cindy Gold and Ilyssa Fradin. Photo by Charles Osgood.

Hile has body language and the emotional breadth that makes Erik a multi-dimensional character. His mother Clara (Ilyssa Fradin) is on her knees with her head in the oven. She mentions how that would have been a lovely way to commit suicide and it becomes apparent that Clara is a ghost. She tries to get Erik's attention but he is oblivious. Fradin is fantastic as a woman who existed in the depths of mental illness and made her family's life miserable. The only person who can detect her presence is Angela (Cindy Gold), the housekeeper who takes care of Erik and his father Philip (Doug MacKechnie).

Gold is funny and poignant as the outsider who comes into a wealthy family's life to bring them down to earth and demonstrate what makes a family. MacKechnie does well playing a man who has been arrested and has to go to AA meetings as part of his community service. This is highly embarrassing to his second wife Evelyn (Jennifer Jeselma) who lives by keeping up a certain image; her husband couldn't possibly be an alcoholic because they entertain and have only the best liquor.

Jeselma plays a tightly wound career woman who works in the entertainment industry where everything is about image. Evelyn has kicked Philip out of their shared bedroom and expects him to play along as the happy host for the holiday party. Evelyn is thrown for a loop when her daughter Rox (Téa Baum) is home for the holidays instead of in Aspen with her boyfriend. Rox is the petulant and spoiled young woman who is on the phone all the time when she is not being flippant and entitled. Baum plays Rox with a vocal fry that we sometimes hear with Millennials and Gen Z. Unfortunately some of the dialogue gets muffled, but at the same time, it is a very good portrayal of that type of character. I can't understand the use of real-life vocal fry and don't want to, but it would be helpful if their dialogue was clearer in the play.

Joe Zarrow, Jennifer Jaselmo, Cindy Gold, and Téa Baum. Photo by Charles Osgood.

Things take an even more weird turn when Evelyn's ex and Rox's father Leo (Joe Zarrow) shows up at the house with the ruse of being Philip's AA sponsor. He just got out of prison for fraud and is after the spooky life-sized doll Julia (voiced by Suzanne Petri). Julia is a sentient doll who was taken from Europe during WWII when Leo's mother escaped the Holocaust. Julia speaks of secrets and the consequences of keeping secrets. Zarrow is the funniest character in Household Spirits and pops in at some of the more odd moments.

I liked the premise of the play more than its execution The storylines are cohesive but their exposition is convoluted and perhaps should be trimmed to make the pace quicker. Household Spirits has the potential to be a mordant satire of suburban life behind the doors of those beautiful homes. What goes on in the lives of the men in the suits on the commuter trains drinking a couple of Manhattans on their way to work in the morning? I would like to have Angela's character and her role in the family dynamic fleshed out more. Also, Angela is the only one who communicates with Clara and knows how she tore her family apart.

The potential is there but it needs the disjointed lives of the characters–dead, alive, and inanimate—to be more clear. Less time could be spent on things like Rox parading around the house in tiny shorts and then yelling at Philip to "stop staring at my ass." The holiday party was more of a distraction than a means of moving the plot forward. I could not quite suspend belief when the story took on a reality show vibe.

Is this A Ghost Ruined My Life meets Blithe Spirit? I recommend the show with some reservations. The acting is worth seeing as the cast does a fine job. For what it's worth, I started doubting the Baltimore Catechism by eighth grade but still went to confession in case purgatory was real. In other words, hedge your bets on belief and where you place your sympathy with these characters.

Household Spirits runs for 2.5 hours with one intermission. The show is playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont in the Lakeview neighborhood. The show runs through November 11, with a special Halloween performance for those in the theater industry. Tickets are $18-$55. Please visit www.theaterwit.org for tickets and more information.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.


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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.