Playwright Rinne Groff’s lead character, Sid Silver (James Houska), was inspired by author Meyer Levin’s 30-year fight to see his play based on Frank┤s diary published and produced. Silver is passionate about spreading Frank┤s story worldwide. At first that passion seems altruistic, but when he meets resistance about focusing on her Jewishness, he becomes narcissistic and selfish.
Houska’s performance is understated early on, but his intensity increases as the plot develops. Even after driving his young French wife (Genevieve Taricco) to the point of suicide, he can’t relinquish his bid for control over the story.
Taricco plays dual roles, swinging from the measured Ms. Mermin, a publishing executive on the rise, to the sensual Mrs. Silver, who starts off strong and supportive but eventually gets pulled into his madness. In one particularly touching scene, Mrs. Silver commiserates with the Frank puppet about the romantic experiences she would never enjoy. Joseph Dickson, in four roles, easily transitions from smarmy executive to angry lawyer to Israeli theater director.
While compelling, the play does suffer from slow pacing. Because they play multiple characters, Dickson and Taricco have frequent costume changes between scenes. Even when costume changes are quick, each scene change requires a stage reset, which also slows the pace.
The play is as much about mental illness as it is about Frank and Jewish politics. Those weighty topics serve as a meaningful backdrop for a cautionary tale about the destructive path of obsession.
The puppets, designed by local puppeteer Fred Engelgau, are an odd element, yet they make sense in the context of the story. Most meaningfully, Silver strips Frank of her humanity, manipulating her image first as a symbol for Jewish martyrdom and later as a symbol of his own persecution complex.
The title sums up the essential conflict: “Compulsion” was Levin’s most popular book, and “The House Behind” was the title of a book that Frank had hoped to write someday about her experiences. By combining those into “Compulsion, or the House Behind,” Groff succinctly identifies the struggle between an obsessed man and a dead young girl for control of her own image.
“Compulsion, or the House Behind”
Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.
Through March 30
8 p.m. Thursday – Saturday
$15 general admission, $10 students/seniors
6025 Curry Lane, Lansing