It's a rare, unexpected experience when the most scintillating work in a show is that done by its lighting designer. Yet sitting in the Connelly Theater for Apparition, you're always more keenly aware of Jane Cox's contributions than those of anyone else involved in this fitful, frustrating production.
A recent example of a more exciting statement of the lighting designer's craft is difficult to recall. With but a modicum of instruments, generally appearing limited in color and complexity, Cox fashions a shadowy nightmarescape of human (and nonhuman) fears. The wavering beam of a single flashlight might be the auditorium's sole light source. Or half a dozen lighting instruments might be so precisely timed and focused as to cause one person to vanish from the stage in the course of a single blink. And when light is extinguished from the theater altogether - as happens several times - that, too, seems by design, intended to produce a kind of anticipatory suffocation.
Cox's work is so exceptional in capturing the haunting specter of fear and the unknown that it's almost unfair to harp on the one thing it doesn't do: illuminate a single worthy aspect of Washburn's script. But as this is also something that neither director Les Waters nor his company of five actors can achieve, one's tempted to cut Cox some slack - she's merely delivering the show that Washburn thinks she wrote. Washburn should be glad: Cox's is much more interesting.
What Washburn has scripted is something of a theatrical horror anthology, a Twilight Zone-type stage show as might appear at a macabre television theme park. A host of characters spend some 85 minutes worrying about what lies just beyond their range of vision, what they can hear but not see, what they'd have no fear of if only the light were present. There are vivid, poetic allusions to Macbeth; scenes are spoken entirely in imaginary Latin; two demons (one feral) argue over the contents of a mysterious bag.
But it all never adds up to anything. Scenic designer Andromache Chalfant has provided a mock-Victorian stage (complete with footlights and elaborate red curtain) to match costume designer Christal Weatherly's period finery, but the dialogue itself seems unstuck in time, one moment classic and the next contemporary, and no overarching style has a chance to develop. Waters's rigid, calculated direction keeps the atmosphere so cool that it's difficult to get heated up even by the few moments that might be genuinely scary.
While Maria Dizzia, Emily Donahoe, David Andrew McMahon, Garrett Neergaard, and T. Ryder Smith sound great intoning Washburn's lines, much of the time, it's impossible to know who's saying what, and often the scene ends just as you're about to figure it out. The performers deserve respect for taking on such anonymous chores, but should still project more distinct, discernible presences than they do.
This can't be easy, of course, since so much time is spent in the complete absence of light. But that improves the experience of the rest of the play, requiring reliance on other senses: During the stretches of time in which you must make do with little or no light, every sound feels as though it's amplified tenfold, every wisp of air more stinging and startling than it would otherwise be. With your other senses so heightened, it's sometimes hard to know whether you should really be grateful for the lights returning.
In the end, of course, you always are. After you're deprived of sight enough times, and given little of note in return, the dark becomes an antagonistic, gimmicky presence. Never a legitimately fearful one, though. Cox might facilitate that with her remarkable work at making you see Apparition's potential, but it doesn't help that everyone else is basically stumbling around blind.