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Unearthly surprises await in 'Summerland'

With Halloween approaching, unearthing thoughts of ghosts, zombies and the living dead, Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford will present Arlita Jones’ intense psycho-thriller “Summerland.”

Based on historical events, “Summerland” is set in 1865 in William H. Mumler’s New York City photography studio. Mumler had become famous with his portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln accompanied by (then deceased) Abraham Lincoln. At that time, post Civil War, there was a huge population grieving for the war dead.

Mumler and his wife developed a thriving business of “spirit photography” by producing portraits including the image of departed loved ones. At that time, photography was new and considered somehow magical. In Mumler’s philosophy, “You must think of the camera lens as an invitation. The photographer’s job is to open the invitation to the world and bid welcome to whatever truth lies in its field of vision.”

Summerland was believed by spiritualists (including Theosophists, Wiccans and Quakers) to be, for the pure of heart, the first level of life after death, “where loved ones wait for us next to a bubbling stream surrounded by bright flowers and birds singing sweet melodies.”

From Summerland, the dead could communicate with the living.

Suspecting fraud, lawman Joseph Tooker arrives to investigate Mumler’s photographic process. He believes Mumler is swindling war widows and grieving mothers. He is also a man who has lost his faith: “I am washed in His blood, but long since strayed from His path. I am quite lost, and probably damned at this point in my life.”

Posing as a bereaved widower, he sits for a portrait and interrogates Mumler, who claims, “The camera reveals what we cannot see — what is there beyond your physical senses.”

Mumler says his photographs give solace to his bereaved subjects. “Grief makes us broken. It robs our souls, leaves us with a gaping wound where once there was light I help people heal. I lighten their grief.”

Tooker, however, believes, “The dead must stay dead.”

As the men debate, emotional intensity builds; mysterious knocking, thumping and clicking begin; and periodically, Tooker and Mumler are thrown about the studio by violent unseen forces.

Entering the studio, Mrs. Mumler seems to float on air, oozing an unearthly mystique. The Mumlers have a rather tenuous relationship. Mumler tells Tooker, “Men marry for comfort. Women marry for something to do.”

Mrs. Mumler may have a shady past, and perhaps a history of spying. As a rather unorthodox “healing medium,” she leads each man into his shadowy past. Resistance is stripped away to reveal their deepest secrets and sins. Will they find absolution?

Russell Lloyd, recently from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, plays the aging Mumler with power, agility and wry humor. He adapts the jarring stride of a man way beyond his prime and effortlessly performs the antics of a truly eccentric character.

The dazzling Jess Mengel is the mysterious Mrs. Mumler, a somnambulist and a collector of memorabilia — from those who have passed on. Although Mumler pictures her as a dutiful wife, Mrs. Mumler has a darker side: Shameless and nonchalant, at times coquettish, at times menacing, she flaunts her sexual prowess to unearth truths. Hypnosis turns to confrontation as she turns on Tooker, unmasking his overwhelming guilt.

Jeff Ripley as Tooker combines strength with an unusual quality of vulnerability as he veers from verbal jousting to emotional distress and heartfelt confessions.

Although the discourse between the characters is sometimes electric and sometimes mesmerizing, the piece would improve by picking up the pace here and there. Such dramatic events might warrant some dramatic lighting, as well.

Director Susan Aversa-Orrego’s costumes are marvelously tailored and gorgeously detailed, adding significantly to the authenticity of the period.

“Summerland” was developed by Seattle Rep for its New Plays Festival, with its second production at the Cincinnati Playhouse in 2017.

My friends and I attended the opening-night performance. We thoroughly enjoyed the sumptuous buffet, wine bar, and the gallery with photographs by Gerry Katz and drawings by Kim Ragsdale.

“Summerland” plays Thursday through Sunday, with extra Monday and Tuesday performances just before Halloween. Evening performances begin at 7:30, and Sunday matinees start at 1:30 p.m. For tickets and information, see www.ctpmedford.org or call 541-779-1055.

Jeff Ripley and Jessical Mengel appear in "Summerland," running through Oct. 31 at Collaborative Theatre Project. Photo by Gerry Katz