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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Home is where you love a thing so much that you always put it back. — Merricat
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Jenn Gambatese and Alexandra Socha
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Just like the façade of their family mansion, slightly askew and bathed in an oppressive blueness, something isn't quite right with the Blackwoods of Bennington, VT. At first, Mary Katherine, nicknamed Merricat (Alexandra Socha), seems like any other innocent, blond-haired, blue-eyed child when she sings about how much she loves her home and family, but we soon discover that something sinister lurks just beneath her words.

Commissioned by Yale Rep, We Have Always Lived in the Castle teams Adam Bock (book and lyrics) and Todd Almond (music and lyrics) in a musical retelling of Shirley Jackson's novel by the same name. Directed by Anne Kaufman, the production combines riveting performances with a haunting score and lyrics to create a creepy and sad atmosphere that draws us in and repels us at the same time.

Merricat and her agoraphobic sister, Constance (Jenn Gambatese), live in their rambling old mansion where they follow the same routine every day and care for their wheelchair-confined Uncle Julian (Bill Buell) who writes the family history while struggling to remember what really happened. The rest of the Blackwoods, including the sisters' parents, were wiped out one night after eating arsenic-laced berries for dessert. Details about the crime are sketchy, except for the fact that Merricat, having been sent to her room as a punishment, didn't eat the berries, and that Constance, who served them, washed out the sugar bowl.

Constance was acquitted of the murders, but lives in a self-made prison. She hasn't ventured beyond the boundaries of her beloved garden since (the flowers are nicely lighted to reveal her changing emotions by designer Stephen Strawbridge). Merricat runs wild, insisting that everything remain unchanged and invents a sort of magic that includes nailing trinkets to trees and burying other talismans around the property to keep danger away.

Kaufman uses darkly-clad ensemble members as "ancestors" who move just beyond the action on stage to add to the ominous atmosphere while doing a good job of keeping us guessing about what is real and imagined. However, the moat Merricat builds around her "castle" fails to protect them from the hostility and gossip of the villagers who ostracize them believing Constance got away with murder. Only Helen Clarke (Beth McVey) visits the sisters regularly for tea, bringing along her friend Lucille Wright (a delightful Joy Franz) who has a ghoulish fascination with viewing the scene of the crime.

When their cousin Charles arrives with a plan to woo Constance (and more to the point, marry the fortune the girls may have hidden in the house) and the villagers are given a chance to brutally act on their pent-up jealousies and frustrations, the castle may no longer be able to withstand the opposition (look for some clever set design by David Zinn).

Bock and Almond have created a haunting score with lyrics, sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, that get to the heart of the joy, fear and longing each character feels. Among the memorable tunes is the haunting "Come to Me" which starts as Constance's entreaty to Merricat to return home from the woods then transitions into an awakening of desire between her and Charles. Finally, Merricat joins in with a voice so pregnant with fear and desperation that when she tries to "will" Constance away from Charles.

It's chilling enough to make one hope for an "afterlife" in New York or at other regional theaters.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Music and Lyrics by Todd Almond
Book and Lyrics by Adam Bock, based on the novel by Shirley Jackson
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Cast: Alexandra Socha (Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood), Jenn Gambatese (Constance Blackwood), Bill Buell (Julian Blackwood), Sean Palmer (Charles Blackwood), Heather Ayers (Maggie Donell), Joy Franz (Mrs. Prudhomme, Lucille Wright, Ellen Blackwood), William Parry (Mr. Elbert, John Blackwood), Carly Hughes ( Stella Suggs), Richard Todd Adams (Jim Donell), Matt Pearson (Joe Durham), Beth McVey (Mrs. Taggert, Helen Clarke, Dorothy Blackwood), Ryan Murphy (Joe Jr., Thomas Blackwood)
Musical Director: Dan Lipton
Musical Staging: Sean CurranScenic Design: Valerie Therese Bart
Scenic Designer: David Zinn
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: Steven Strawbridge
Sound Designer: Tony Smolenski IV
Orchestrations:Todd Almond, Dan Lipton
Vocal Coach: Vicki Shaghoian
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes with a 15 minute intermission
University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven
Performances: Tuesdays at 8 pm, Wednesdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 pm and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm.
Tickets range from $10 to $85 and are available online at, by phone at (203) 432-1234, and in person at the Yale Rep Box Office (1120 Chapel Street, at York Street).  Student, senior, and group rates are also available.
Sept. 17-Oct. 9, 2010
Review by Lauren Yarger based on performance of Sept. 25, 2010  
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • We Blackwoods/Merricat,Constance, Julian, Ancestors
  • Gossip/Jim, Joe, Villagers
  • Spring is Coming/Constance
  • The Last of Our Slow Lovely Days/Merricat, Constance, Ancestors
  • I'm Dreaming/Come to Me reprise/Constance, Ancestors
  • His Beautiful Thought/Charles
  • Cleaning/On the Moon/Merricat, Constance. Ancestors
  • The Stomp/Charles, Men
  • The Stomp Reprise/Julian, Merricat, Ancestors
  • I Know You/Merricat, Charles, Ancestors
Act Two
  • Entr'acte
  • She Didn't Get Very Far/Charles, Constance
  • Come To Me/Constance. Charles, Merricat, Ancestors
  • Smoke/Merricat. Charles, Ancestors
  • Fire/Villagers, Charles
  • Believe Me/Helen
  • Everything That Grows/Orchestra
  • Yellow Flower/Constance
  • We Blackwoods Finale/Merricat/Company
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