There’s a glint of magic as the adventure begins in Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production of The Ghost of Splinter Cove that you’ll only appreciate if you’ve already seen playwright Steven Dietz’s companion piece, The Great Beyond, in the world premiere Actor’s Theatre production at Queens University. What’s going down? Make that who. Nate Banks and his sister Cora, on their first night at their late grandfather’s house, have been sent downstairs into the basement to spend the night.
Yet their parents are far from callous. With the camping gear that their dad bought Nate for his birthday, they will break in his new tent — with a dome! — while their parents get their “adult time” upstairs. Nor has Rex, their dad, been lazy. To liven up their adventure, and to make up for canceling an outdoor expedition, Dad has downloaded a nifty smartphone app that will help simulate a true wilderness experience. Rex has troubled to hook the app up to loudspeakers, lights and even a fan, so a starry night and stormy weather are both on the horizon after sundown.
But wait, there’s a holdup. Sydney, the daughter of Aunt Emily’s partner, Rene, asks Nate if he has chosen the destination for their wilderness adventure. Nate is dumbfounded until Sydney explains that she has the latest version of the same wilderness-simulating app, and it offers that cool option. Nate will need to take the time to download the update.
Now here’s where the magic happens. Once the Sim-Camp app is downloaded to Sydney’s phone and all the necessary Bluetooth connections are made, the most advanced Deep Wilderness option it presents — past the “Peppermint” and “Sunset Trail” baby options — is Splinter Cove. None of the kids has ever heard of the place, but if you’ve already seen what unfolds upstairs in Great Beyond, you will not have forgotten how important Splinter Cove is in the family history. It’s the place where Dad wants to bury Granddad’s ashes, for one thing.
Pure coincidence? “Hey, it’s selected already,” Nate observes as soon as he sees the most advanced options. When we hear him saying “Splinter Cove” for the first time, it triggers the loudspeakers.
Long before this, however, a foreboding sense of dread hovers over the knocturnal adventure. There’s a fourth person in the basement, J, that both Nate and Cora imagine they can see. This imaginary friend doesn’t look anything like what the siblings imagine, he’s always in a different spot from where they point and he’d rather talk to us than either of them.
There’s a comical aspect to the kids’ misperceptions, of course, but J is not the clownish comedian that Nate imagines. So who and what is he? Why has he been in the kids’ lives for as long as they can remember, and what are his intentions now?
Finding out will be part of the adventure, to be sure, and you can bet that Dietz has built plenty of suspense into the action leading up to that revelation. Among the works I’ve seen over the past 32 years of covering Children’s Theatre productions, only The Wizard of Oz; The Hobbit; and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were scarier, which makes Splinter Cove the scariest original children’s play I’ve ever read or seen.
It could be scarier at the Wells Fargo Playhouse if director Courtney Sale had put the pedal to the metal on all the jolts of surprise and terror that Dietz has sprinkled into his exemplary script. And it could be more spectacular if all the technical capabilities of ImaginOn’s larger theater, the McColl Family Theater, were marshaled to the cause.
While I felt Sale had been too cautious about crossing the fright threshold, my mom wondered if this show might be too intense for 8-year-olds after viewing Cove with me. So this is far from a punchless production, though our friend Carol opined that she also was disappointed in the fright factor after seeing Great Beyond earlier in the week.
Dietz’s craftsmanship certainly shines through, all the more brightly if you see both plays in this unprecedented Second Story Project. You don’t simply have adults upstairs and kids downstairs. Dietz makes sure we see a family at both ends of the staircase, with traits that align across the generations.
Like her mom, who resists the idea of holding a séance upstairs, Cora is anything but gung-ho about the camping trip, letting out a stream of sarcasm that parallels Mom’s resistance. Nate not only embraces his dad’s camping idea, he expands upon his resourcefulness, adding a campfire and a moon to the experience.
You’ll readily recognize moments that must occur in both plays, when Rex calls down from the top of the stairs and the kids respond, but I’ve discovered another one that isn’t so obvious. When Sydney asks the time, Nate responds, “Dad would say: ‘Straight-up six o’clock’” — while Dad is saying those exact words to Aunt Emily.
There are amusing misalignments as well. Cora is contemptuous of the prospect of joining hands and saying something enthusiastic before embarking on their wilderness adventure, yet her mom, Monica, does a little pinky-square ceremony with Rene, Sydney’s mom, shortly after they meet for the first time. Upstairs, with Rene presiding, they will dim the lights and light candles for a spooky séance, so it’s apt — if not particularly healthy — that her daughter is afraid of the dark.
Telling you what happens on the Splinter Cove camping adventure would be spewing spoilers for two Dietz dramas at once. It’s more prudent to point out that the playwright follows a tried-and-true storytelling formula by having Sydney face and overcome her fear in the heat of her adventure. Following the Wizard of Oz template, Dietz does this in triplicate, for Nate is afraid of deep water despite his swimming lessons and, again like her mom, Cora has serious trust issues.
Sale’s all-adult cast is marvelous, even if she doesn’t allow them to be as frightening as they could be. Chester Shepherd, whose electrifyingly high-strung performance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will be long remembered, is hamstrung as Nate by Sale’s trepidations, scurrying around in terror as if he were doing one of the comical minor roles in Disney’s The Lion King. Notwithstanding how excellently it is done, that shtick dampens a moment when the fear factor should be dialed way up. You always believe Shepherd is a child, though, and his eagerness for the adventure fuels momentum from the start. Thrown by the adventure into the deep water, his terror is more human but still homogenized.
Carman Myrick seems to enjoy freer rein conveying Cora’s doubts and fears, for Dietz is demonstrating in both of his plays how much more readily we believe when our heroes face strong and nasty skepticism. Cora is the heavy, no doubt, but only intermittently like her mom, and I loved how thoroughly the magic of “Splinter Cove” worked on Myrick from the first time it was said out loud. On a relatively spare Anita Tripathi set design, Myrick makes her climactic climb and discovery compelling, and her achievement of trust becomes a dramatic watershed moment in more ways than one.
Coming off her stint just last month at ImaginOn as the pesky would-be girlfriend in Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, Kayla Simone Ferguson doesn’t get to be cute or obnoxious this time around. The physical resemblance between Ferguson and Tania Kelly, the actor playing Sydney’s mom, is pronounced, but the personality parallels aren’t as obvious as the Banks kids’ with their parents. You could say that Rene is the spiritual guide and her daughter is the phone app guru, but the more lasting kinship is their calm and impartiality reacting to the sibling squabbles going on upstairs and downstairs.
Ferguson understands that she’s to be the sounding board for Nate and Cora to tell her (and us) all the important things they already know about each other. Meeting strangers in a strange house — “Wait, I’m spending the night?” — gives her license to be a little forlorn and pathetic. Most importantly perhaps, in confessing her fear of the dark, Sydney brings the squabbling sibs together in sympathy and starts the conversation going about each one’s greatest fear. Facing and overcoming these are the core of the adventure from a classic theatre-for-young-audiences perspective.
Bemused detachment typifies J as he slinks unseen among the children, along with a light sprinkling of menace — a bit heavier when he steals a smartphone from one of the kids’ backpacks. Sooooo shrewd of Sale to cast Arjun Pande in this intriguing role. He doesn’t immediately tell us he’s an adult, but with his low voice, he contrasts with Shepherd, whose sound and energy mark him as a kid. Pande also towers over all his castmates, so even those 8-year-olds in the audience who are braving this thriller will likely realize he’s the adult in the basement before he actually lets on.
If Pande isn’t quite as sardonic as he could be ridiculing the siblings’ basic misperceptions, he has the strong quiet confidence of an enigma waiting to be discovered, presciently knowing that this is the night when he will be. It’s a magical, magisterial role that Pande inhabits almost nonchalantly. Quiet confidence is more than justified, for even after everyone has vanished, J will remain a dizzying enigma.
One last wonder is how Dietz packs so much into the 53 minutes of Splinter Cove, only slightly slowed down by the two mind-blowing set changes. For that matter, what Dietz packs into less than 80 minutes in The Great Beyond is an equal marvel. Perhaps one day, a single theatre company will produce both Beyond and Cove on the same stage on the same night, and perhaps that’s what Dietz had in mind when he put the finishing touches on his Second Story Project.
Maybe then Dietz will decide which play should be seen first! He wrote Splinter Cove first, but my vote goes to seeing it last. And last it definitely will.