Caravan Productions

at the Heartland Studio

Beyond the Pale is an impressive example of what can be done with an idea, some talented people, and a few dollars. A very few dollars.

Conceived by the director, Jessica Thebus, and one of the cast members, Shannon Jackson, this play consists of eight Chicago ghost stories–all of them true, according to the program. Thebus and her ensemble of six shaped these stories into brief scenes that are presented as story theater, with the actors narrating the story as well as portraying the characters in it.

Thebus’s direction is sharp and inventive. Each scene has a distinct style and personality, as though the director created a unique form for each story. “The Haunting of Cook County Jail” is presented as a monologue by the jailer, while “The Terror Spread by the Medical Students’ Nocturnal Labors” is done as a radio drama.

The performances are sophisticated, even though the actors are young and relatively inexperienced. Scott Markwell is particularly effective as the droll Cook County jailer who enjoys scaring the inmates with stories of executed prisoners who haunt the building. And Shannon Jackson gives a touching performance as the grief-stricken mother whose daughter has died during childbirth in “Julia, the Italian Bride.” Two violinists, Alleyne Hoyt and Alice Oldfather, provide suitably haunting background music.

All this is accomplished on a budget that must hover just above zero. The show is staged in the Heartland Studio, an inconspicuous storefront located behind the Heartland Cafe. The actors, all dressed in street clothes, talk and laugh with each other on the stage before the show–in part, I suspect, because there’s no place in the tiny storefront for them to remain out of sight. During the show they use almost no props. Julia’s wedding dress, for example, is suggested by a long piece of gauzy fabric, and actors standing motionless on chairs suggest a collection of grotesque statues discovered by a 12-year-old boy. The simple lighting, coordinated by stage manager Joe Cytrynbaum, is occasionally reduced to the least expensive component–a single candle.

The only problem is that the stories are not very scary, and some are not even very interesting. The most peculiar, “The Devil Baby at Hull House,” comes from Jane Addams’s memoir Forty Years at Hull House. Tony Sacre uses the author’s own words to recount how a rumor began circulating in Chicago in 1913 that a “devil baby” was at Hull House. People began to gather to see the baby, and many of them had theories about how to drive out the devil. Addams thought these theories provided a way for these people to gain an illusion of control over their lives–if they could drive the devil out of this baby, they would have some power.

“The Stonecutter,” adapted from an article that appeared in the Chicago American in 1936, is about a boy who puts out his own eyes so he will stop seeing the grotesque statues he witnessed by candlelight one night. “The Ace of Spades,” which includes an Irish lament sung by Tria Smith, is about a grandmother who has a prophetic dream that her grandson will be killed while cheating at cards. In “Kaiser Hall,” Annie Ryan plays a young woman who dances with the devil, who has assumed the shape of a handsome young man. In the final scene each cast member portrays someone who has encountered Chicago’s most famous ghost, Resurrection Mary, who supposedly appears near Resurrection Cemetery, where she is buried.

Last fall Thebus, who’s working on her doctorate in performance studies at Northwestern University, demonstrated what she’s learning with a clever adaptation of Uncle Lemon’s Spring for the children’s series at Lifeline Theatre. Beyond the Pale is every bit as clever, but like a kids’ show, the material seems soft and playful so it won’t scare the audience.