Jenn Gambatese and Sean Palmer in
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
(© Joan Marcus)
Jenn Gambatese and Sean Palmer in
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
(© Joan Marcus)
It's sometimes a puzzle which stories make fit meat for a musical. Where one saga about a pair of co-dependent agoraphobes turns out to be a feast (Grey Gardens), Adam Bock and Todd Almond's new adaptation of Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, now at Yale Repertory Theatre under Anne Kauffman's direction, emerges as thin gruel.

You certainly can't fault the exceptional cast. Alexandra Socha is gripping from the get-go as the narrator figure, 18-year-old Mary Katherine ("Merricat") Blackwood, a wild child fiercely -- you might say demonically -- protective of her ancestral New England home and its damaged occupants: her reclusive older sister Constance (Jenn Gambatese, unfortunately confined to a placid, passive role) and invalid Uncle Julian (Bill Buell, who manages to wrest laughs with his elderly crotchets).

Merricat starts off the show, an evil glint in her eye, with "We Blackwoods," pitting the tidy pleasures of her own clearly superior household against the nastiness -- the grubbiness and gossip -- that prevails among their neighbors. (As Jackson's most famous short story "The Lottery" indicated, she was no fan of small-town life.) Still, it's only natural that she'd be the target of taunts. There would be a lot more folks to feed back at the homestead had the bulk of them not been poisoned, years ago, by a dessert topped with arsenic-laced sugar.

Constance, accused and acquitted of the mass murder, never rebounded. Although she'll tolerate the occasional visitors -- Beth McVey and Joy Franz are hilarious as a pair of matrons mixing Good Samaritanism and morbid curiosity -- it takes the arrival of handsome cousin Charles (Sean Palmer) to upset the prevailing stasis.

Unfortunately, the story grows wearying quickly, and Almond's lackluster music, a mélange of faux-classical accompaniment and art songs -- most of them one step removed from recitative -- doesn't help matters. Interest perks up briefly at the top of act two, with a flashback to that fateful dinner, but too much time afterwards is spent on Merricat's bad-seed attempts to oust the interloping relative.

Her ultimate ploy, arson, ought to liven things up a bit, except that choreographer Seán Curran, in charge of "musical staging," inexplicably calls for the townspeople to stand and deliver down center while David Zinn's lathe-skeleton set provides most of the action.

Ilona Somogyi deserves praise for the costumes: drab 1950s styles in autumnal tones for the mean-spirited matrons in town, and Donna Reed homemaker dresses for the domestically inclined Constance. But when you come away from a musical trailing impressions that are mainly visual rather than aural, something is simply off.