A house rises in 'Hammers,' but relationships fall apart

March 06, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Rod Serling would've loved it -- a house that grew and grew and grew, all because a spiritualist advised the eccentric owner that she'd die when construction stopped.

Heck, Hechinger's would love it! And the strangest thing of all is that the Winchester "Mystery" House actually exists, a bizarre 160-room mansion in San Jose, Calif., built over a period of 38 years by an heiress to the Winchester Arms fortune.

That mansion, its owner (fictionalized and re-named Sophia Weatherlee) and a handful of make-believe characters are the subject of "Hammers," currently at the Theatre Project in a co-production by Towson State University's graduate theater program and the Independent Eye, a Philadelphia-based theater company. If you've ever had a home improvement project you thought would never end, this show should put it in perspective.

Using a script by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller, created in collaboration with the Independent Eye's improvisational workshop, "Hammers" juxtaposes a tour of the mansion with the tale of its construction -- a job the playwrights suggest was begun in part because the heiress believed boosting the local economy would in some way make up for her father's profiteering from arms sales in wartime.

The result turns a curious tourist attraction into more than a mere oddity. It's a drama with genuine characters and themes, but one that can also be hit-you-over-the-head obvious.

The time barrier-breaking interaction between the play's two sets of characters, one set in the past and one in the present, is the script's cleverest device. As the present-day tour guide (Brandon Welch) leads three tourists -- Kim Garmon, Kristin Gosweiler and Mark Squirek, all wearing masks with mouths that gape in perpetual astonishment -- through the building, they come in closer and closer contact with the ghosts of Weatherlee and her workmen. At the same time, Lucie Poirier, as the irrationally demanding Weatherlee, complains about sensing people hovering around her.

So who's crazy? The tourists who treat one woman's obsession as just another vacation attraction, or the woman who created it?

But there's a bigger theme at work here. "Hammers" contends that the only building worth the effort is building relationships. Weatherlee's foreman, Chuck, played by an earnest Tom Brandau, unwittingly gets as caught up in this endless construction project as Weatherlee. He's so busy building, he doesn't realize that the lives of those around him are falling apart.

First, the original foreman (Mojo Gentry) who hired and befriended Chuck becomes an alcoholic. Then Chuck's wife (Jamie Jones), the high school sweetheart for whom he presumably took this job, seeks solace in affairs and pills to compensate for her husband's increasingly long hours away from home.

Despite the intriguing themes underlying this Serling-esque horror story, under Bishop's direction, the play -- like the construction of the house itself -- goes on too long and takes confusing detours.

It also overstates metaphors that would be better left for theatergoers to discover, such as the foreman's 11th-hour realization: "You can get lost in here."

Elise Viola's set design, with its rambling framework of unfinished rooms, gives the tourists plenty of open spaces through which to peer and interact with the house's owner and work crew. But even though this is one of the more imposing sets ever seen at the Theatre Project, it essentially confines the action to three small acting areas -- a shortcoming that could be used to advantage if, for example, the actors became more cramped as the house expanded.

Still, if you're the least bit superstitious, you can't help but come away from "Hammers" a little spooked. I own a table my husband made from a tree trunk he salvaged after Winchester Arms had used the rest of the tree for gunstocks. Despite my entreaties, my husband has never applied the last few coats of varnish. After seeing "Hammers," I found myself thinking, what's the rush?

'Hammers'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $14

Call: (410) 752-8558

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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