Can you offer help to those who don’t ask for it? This is the central question of Calamity West’s Hinter, now in its world premiere at Steep Theatre. Directed by Brad DeFabo Akin, the play takes as its subject the unsolved murders of the Gruber family on the isolated Hinterkaifeck farm in 1922 Bavaria.
West hauntingly portrays the suffering of the impoverished German people during the interwar period, suffering that will soon leave Europe vulnerable to the rise of totalitarianism. In Hinterkaifeck, food is scarce. Conditions are grim. Most of the young men were killed in the war and those who survived suffer the psychological scars. Women do all the work in this world, but have little power.
Hinter draws from conventions of the suspense genre. The combined effects of Akin’s taut direction and Pete Dully’s lighting design create a Hitchcockian atmosphere while spooky stage effects keep the play straddling the line between ghost story and whodunit. Lauren Nigri’s set and and Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes are evocative of the period, but West’s use of contemporary American vernacular, reminds the audience we’re not watching documentary theater.
The family’s maid, Elizabeth Hummel (Sasha Smith) had quit the day before the murder claiming the house was haunted. Frieda Richter (Lauren Sivak) a neighbor and Klara Müller (Sigrid Sutter) a farmhand are the first to arrive on the scene. It is Klara who senses something is wrong but Frieda has more authority and takes charge. Soon an Inspector Herzog (Peter Moore) is summoned from Munich. As Herzog comically proceeds with his investigation, bemoaning the inconveniences of the countryside, oblivious to the feelings of the mourning household around him, Klara and Frieda privately clash over whether to protect the privacy of the dead.
The talented ensemble give strong performances across the board. Some of the most compelling moments include private conversations between Klara and Elizabeth and a heartbreaking mother-daughter conversation between Viktoria (Eunice Woods) and Cazillia (Melissa Riemer). Jim Poole is perfectly menacing as the patriarch Andres.
The chilling circumstances of the Gruber murders will likely bring to mind the murders of the Clutter family as reported in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But West departs from Capote, and the rest of the true crime genre that book spawned, in that she’s not interested in exploring what drives killers to act. Instead she asks: what kind of society creates the conditions that makes crimes like these possible? By focusing on the domestic circumstances of Hinterkaifeck victims and survivors, West exposes the shameful tolerance for violence, especially against women and children, woven into our culture. The message of Hinter ultimately is that all of this violence is on a continuum. What then, West asks, are our responsibilities to our friends and neighbors who are being haunted by the living?
Hinter is a thought-provoking, hilarious and thoroughly chilling play that leaves its audience with more questions than answers.
BIAS ALERT: I know Calamity West through my participating in The Writers Room at The New Colony. I’m also on friendly terms with the artists of Steep.
Director – Brad DeFabo Akin*
Stage Manager – Lauren Lassus**
Set Designer – Lauren Nigri
Lighting Designer – Pete Dully*
Sound Designer – Thomas Dixon**
Costume Designer – Mieka van der Ploeg
Props Designer – Kathryn Johnson
Violence & Intimacy Choreographer – Sasha Smith
Dramaturg – Neena Arndt
Assistant Director – Almanya Narula
Production Manager – Catherine Allen