Review by Brittany Crowell

Whisper House by The Civilians at 59E59 is simple and sweet.

The piece, directed by Steve Cosson, begins in a tone of magic and hopelessness with two ghostly figures of the past introducing us to the lighthouse and its inhabitants by musing they’d be “better off dead.”

We meet a young boy, Christopher (Wyatt Cirbus) sitting on a train, whose “father flew to heaven / mother went insane.”  After his father died in the war, Christopher was sent to live with his aunt, Miss Lily (Samantha Mathis) in a lighthouse on the western coast of the US in the midst of World War 2. We meet Miss Lily’s lighthouse aid (and friend), Yasuhiro (James Yaegashi), a Japanese man who left his home country before the war to escape a tragic past. Through the eyes of young Christopher, the piece contends with loss, the fear of beginning again, and the xenophobia rampant in the US at the time of the war.

The majority of the music in the show comes from our ghostly narrators, who we later learn are haunting the lighthouse and its inhabitants for very specific reason. Alex Boniello and Molly Hager skillfully perform each note of the whimsical score by Duncan Sheik and their movement (choreographed by Billy Bustamante) mirrors the wistful and beautiful harmonies and is felt like a ghostly wind by the living in the audience and onstage alike.

Jeb Brown Wyatt Cirbus in WHISPER HOUSE; Photo by Richard Termine

The book, by Kyle Jarrow, suffers slightly without the aid of songs for our tragic heroes.  While the other performers are fabulously committed, it is sometimes difficult to understand their emotional depth and buy into the simple yet magnanimous changes within them.   The sheriff of the town, played by Jeb Brown, is the exception here, as he expertly navigates the sheriff’s small-town charm with his bigoted world view and brings the audience along as he takes baby steps towards more acceptance and understanding.

The set design by Alexander Dodge serves as a character in itself and sets the tone of the tight ninety-minute musical, reflecting the curvature and coloring of a lighthouse. While simple at first sight, the black white and gray streamers that hang from the varying levels of the lighthouse miraculously reveal and disappear its various rooms and corners by raising and lowering.  Lights pepper the space changing color from scene to scene as lighting designers Jorge Arroyo and Jeff Croiter wonderfully combine the real with the surreal, layering in harsh whites and warm colors to join the magical world of the spirits and the difficult world of the living.

Overall, Whisper House is a sweet and simple story of acceptance in all its forms: accepting yourself, accepting those around you, accepting your circumstance, and giving yourself the generosity needed to continue to be a beacon of light for yourself and those around you.  It’s running at 59E59 through February 6 and worth catching if you are able to.



WHISPER HOUSE – music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik; book and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow
Conceived with Keith Powell; Directed by Steve Cosson; Choreographed by Billy Bustamante

Featuring: Samantha Mathis (Lily); Alex Boniello (Male Ghost); Jeb Brown (Sheriff / Doctor); Wyatt Cirbus (Christopher); Molly Hager (Female Ghost); James Yaegashi (Yasuhiro)

Scenic design by Alexander Dodge; costume design by Linda Cho; lighting design by Jorge Arroyo and Jeff Croiter; sound design by Ken Traavis; special effects by Jeremy Chernick; props by Olive Barrett.  Produced by the Civilians and 59E59: Val Day, artistic director; Brian Beirne, managing director.  59 East 59th Street, New York, NY. 212-753-5959.  Through February 6.  Run time 90 minutes.