Credit: Gregg Gilman

O
n Friday, March 31, 1922, at a remote farm outside the Bavarian town of
Kaifeck, someone slaughtered six people-the Gruber family and their
maid-striking each one repeatedly on the head and face with a pickax. Four
days later neighbors found the bodies. They also discovered that the farm
and livestock had been well tended all weekend; the killer had apparently
moved in for a while before vanishing.

In Hinter, Chicago playwright Calamity West transforms this grisly
unsolved murder into a theatrical centrifuge of violence: not only criminal
but familial, cultural, and international. The Great War has left a
hinterland full of widows, including Viktoria, the murdered farm owner;
Klara, the devout farmhand; and Frieda, the stone-faced nearest neighbor.
When the cosmopolitan Munich investigator arrives to investigate the case,
he barely bothers to care about a handful of murdered hicks. And the
further he proceeds, the more it becomes clear that Viktoria lived in
domestic terror. (Historically, her father-Andreas in real life, Andres in
the play-previously served a year in prison for committing incest with her,
but the script makes no reference to his imprisonment.)

It’s ultimately the family horror, and the efforts of an unlikely rural
ally to rescue Viktoria from it, that forms the spine of West’s play. In
typical fashion, West writes taut dialogue full of sublimation and
misdirection as well as sudden bursts of frankness, creating a menacing
unpredictability that aptly suits the situation-not only the unexplained
carnage, but also the possibility of supernatural goings on at the farm.

A few key plot points strain credulity. Andres “accidentally” admits to a
horrific act with little provocation. Viktoria’s former maid Elizabeth, who
recently fled because she believed the farm was haunted, returns and stays
for no reason beyond theatrical expediency. Maria, the new maid, speaks so
insolently to Andres it’s hard to fathom she wouldn’t be discharged
immediately.

Still, West has assembled potent incidents into an explosive mix, as is her
wont. But the script’s bifurcated structure short-circuits the whole
affair. West sets act one just after the murders and act two just before,
switching the focus to new characters after intermission, resetting the
dramatic course, and dropping almost everything set up for payoff in the
first half. In essence, she’s created separate halves of different plays.
And the conclusion brings little meaningful resolution.

Just as problematic, director Brad DeFabo Akin doesn’t capitalize on the
script’s strengths. Rather than establishing a stage world of unsettling
peculiarity, he’s created one of stilted disjointedness. The characters
relate to one another as relative strangers rather than as lifelong
inhabitants of shared isolation. It’s hard to discern who these people are
to one other, and thus their collective stake in the tragedy never comes
into focus.   v