High production values help push puzzling script choices into the shadows in Vertigo’s ghost tale Whispers in the Dark

In her program notes for Whispers in the Dark, playwright Anna Cummer describes how her husband, Vertigo artistic director Craig Hall, gave her an anthology of Victorian ghost stories two years ago, and offered to commission her to adapt one of them into a full stage production. She chose A Pair of Hands, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, a 4,700-word story that she modified extensively to turn it into a two-act play.

It’s 1868, and the central character is Miss Elizabeth Le Petyt (Heather Pattengale), a writer who is looking for a place to rest and relax until inspiration strikes. She settles on a cottage in Cornwall, whose landlord, Mr. Hosking (Graham Percy), is mysteriously unwilling to enter the cottage himself. Mrs. Carkeek (Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan) is the housekeeper who comes with the cottage. She is initially silent and abrasive, and we are told that she is reserved because previous tenants have been an unsavoury bunch. Strange and inexplicable events ensue, as they are wont to do in ghost stories. 

The short story that Cummer uses as her source material is a brief vignette that subverts the usual narrative arc of the ghost story, but doesn’t provide much in the way of character development. Cummer has taken it as inspiration, and added not just elaboration, but a completely different story. It’s hard to describe without spoilers, but it is quite difficult to reconcile the elements she has added with the resolution of the tale, which returns to the original ending of the short story. 

As the strange and inexplicable events roll out, there is a suggestion that Mrs. Carkeek is their ominous source, but then in a rapid and equally inexplicable shift in relationship, the two women become confidants and friends. Miss Le Petyt is introduced as a strong-willed and independent woman, but with seemingly minor stimulus, becomes submissive and cowering. Mrs. Carkeek is taciturn, but turns on a dime to become a chatty ally. The possibly ghostly presence in the house is an equally unpredictable character, and the result is a production that feels fragmented. 

David Fraser’s set brings the relatively large Vertigo stage down to a warm and cozy scale that fits the three-hander well, and with a few minor exceptions, Anton de Groot’s lighting is moody and evocative of candle and lamplight. Simon Mallett’s staging plays up the occasional suspenseful moments, but often relies on things like crashing thunder and people bursting unexpectedly through doors to achieve a burst of adrenaline. The high production values hide a multitude of sins, though, and while puzzling, it isn’t an unpleasant evening. 

(Photo courtes Citrus Photo.)

Whispers in the Dark plays at Vertigo Theatre until Feb. 23.