Allen has said that Melville came out of his experiences in Cape Cod; before becoming a playwright-in-residence at the Signature Theatre in Washington D.C., he spent a summer as caretaker of a historic home on the Cape, and he believes that he had a spectral visitation in which he saw the image of a woman in Victorian dress looking over him. That image, Cape Cod's whaling industry, and the gay community in Provincetown provided the impetus for the play.
Melville is alternately a comedy and a ghost story as its action switches back and forth from the present to the 19th century. Allen focuses on a couple (played by Robert Gardner and Ellen Karsten) who, because of the husband's heart attack, have taken what they assume will be stress-free jobs as caretakers and tour guides for a historic New England house. Unfortunately, the place is inhabited by the ghost of Captain Harcourt (Carney Gray), a 19th century seaman whose violent death has forced him to haunt his former abode. The play concerns the attempt of the current owners (Nancy Gormley and Julie Ann Nevill) to turn the house into a five-star tourist attraction, as well as Captain Harcourt's past romantic relationship with a young, male sailor (Jim Halloran) and, finally, the caretakers' solving of the captain's murder and their own relationship problems.
Unfortunately, it takes a large portion of the first act for the plot to develop and for the audience to become fully involved in the play. Filled with discussions about such literary figures as Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville, not to mention mankind's shortcomings and the virtues of political correctness, Act I often feels like a combination English Lit/Political Science class. Fortunately, Melville becomes engaging and heartfelt as the plot thickens.
The play's slow start doesn't seem to bother director Richard Cook; he never rushes the cast, instead allowing them to deliver Allen's speeches about life's injustices and the human condition with the care and delicacy of poetry. While the entire company is skillful, Gormley's portrayal of Mrs. Biddle -- an older woman whose outlook on life takes a youthful turn under the influence of her newfound gay friends in P-town -- is especially humorous and touching.
Cook orchestrates the ensemble to good effect upon Randle Farris' multi-level set, which at various points resembles a forest or the sails of a whaling ship. Reid Rejsa's eerie sound design and Michael P. Kittel's atmospheric lighting are effective in conjuring the milieu of a ghost story. While Melville Slept Here is overly academic and pedantic at times, the play is funny, romantic, and ultimately satisfying when viewed in its entirety.
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