Characters have summoned or tangled with spirits at Penumbra Theatre in the past, including, most notably, one played by James Craven as the family-seeking protagonist in a 2002 production of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
But none of those human-and-ghost interactions have been as gripping or as spine-tingling as what is now transpiring in “The Brothers Paranormal,” a new must-see thriller that opened Thursday at the St. Paul playhouse.
A coproduction between Penumbra and Theater Mu, the play was crafted by newbie playwright Prince Gomolvilas. It bowed in the Twin Cities a day after another production opened in New York as part of what Gomolvilas called a “rolling world premiere.”
From the first high-pitched notes in the spare but effective score (Scott Edwards did the masterful sound design), “Paranormal” sets your teeth on edge. That grip only intensifies when we see the sepulchral ghost, who looks like an escapee from “Friday the 13th” and is played hauntingly by acrobatic actor Michelle de Joya.
But the really surprising thing about this new play is not that its main ghost appears out of nowhere. The play is a supernatural thriller that’s loaded with heart and even more heartbreak. The most successful comedies use humor to prime the audience for some serious, affirming messages. Gomolvilas’ innovation is using the supernatural to make affecting but totally unexpected points about loss, displacement, mental illness and family.
“Paranormal” takes place on Vicki Smith’s suggestive set with a pretty straightforward plot. Thai-American brothers Visarut (Kurt Kwan) and Max (Sherwin Resurreccion) have a ghost-hunting business. Visarut, who was born in Thailand, believes in ghosts and therefore believes the business is legit. American-born Max doesn’t believe in ghosts. He believes their business is a scam, but he is down with it anyway.
As the play opens, Max is finalizing the company’s first deal in six months. The clients are Delia (Regina Marie Williams) and Felix (Craven), an African-American couple displaced by a hurricane from New Orleans to a landlocked state in the Midwest. They need help getting rid of a spirit who haunts their new home.
The cast, which also includes Leslie Ishii in a gentle but strong turn as Tasanee — the brothers’ mother — is unreservedly excellent. Resurreccion carries the bulk of the show on his smooth, steady and ultimately credulous shoulders. His character goes on a journey of belief and faith, and he makes us feel the effect on him. Kwan also delivers a moving performance, one with an accent the character loses once to beautiful comic effect.
Williams is a titan of the stage, and her Delia is finely etched. In quavering poetry, she makes us feel her thoughts and fears as they ripple across her face and into the audience. And Craven plays Felix with affecting pathos, giving us a character whose work in one realm affects the outcome in another. That last lesson is something we know from another ghost story — “Scrooge.” While “Paranormal” doesn’t have the uplifting ending of the Dickens classic, this new play should join the famous miser in the theatrical canon.