by Sandy Moore
The dinner table set is set for a sumptuous wedding feast, complete with multi-tiered cake, crystal, fine china and champagne. But it’s covered in cobwebs, crawling with insects, molested by mice. Soon Miss Haversham, from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, arrives wearing a turn-of-the-century wedding gown, antique-white, with layers of beads and lace.
In the room next door, actors playing detective Sherlock Holmes and Watson rehearse their lines for a short segment of The Speckled Band.
It’s October 30th, All Hallows Eve, and line forms on the sidewalk in front of Caroline’s dark Victorian house where she is hosting the 9th annual “Visitation” a kind of literary haunted house. Some visitors come in costume, and others leave the dressing up to the actors.
Director Caroline Alderson (by day, a historic preservation specialist) happens to live in the old double house at the corner of Maple and Tulip Avenue in Takoma Park that looks, well, haunted. “I realized when my kids were little that Takoma Park really loves Halloween. And I thought -I’ve got the right house, and lot of friends who are musicians and actors. We all like making stories come alive,” she said.
Soon she began scouting costume sales at area theatres, and recruiting volunteers. Takoma’s All Hallows Eve Visitation was born.
“We prefer Gothic to gory,” said Alderson, when explaining how hers compares to the traditional haunted house. This year, the event included a cast of 50 (including backstage people), and featured highlights from “your Favorite Gothic Dramas and Tragedies,” including scenes from A Tale of Two Cities, The Raven, Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, The Woman in Black, Great Expectations, and Dracula.
Chris Monsell mans the guillotine for A Tale of Two Cities, for which Natalie Gradwohl plays Mme LeBreaux.
A few lucky kids got to be a part of the ghostly cast at the double door house. Thirteen-year-old Takoma Park native Natalie Gradwohl is no stranger to acting: she’s done 18 plays with Lumina Studio Theatre. Last fall she was drafted to replace a sick actor at the Haunted House, and she’s back this year playing Madame LeBreaux in the Tale of Two Cities tableau.
“Our Haunted House appeals to the more literate person, it’s not just ‘Boo’– scary ghost stuff,” said Natalie. “Although my part is small, we just have a few minutes to grab people’s attention, so it’s almost harder than acting in regular plays.”
Eleven year-old Elizabeth Wiser is also a veteran of the Haunted House cast. She returned this year to play a character in the scene from A Woman in Black (although Elizabeth wears a white dress and ghostly make-up). “I’ve acted in the school play, but this is a fun part. I like screaming,” she said.
Elizabeth Wiser plays Ghost Girl, frightening guests at the Visitation.
Montgomery College sophomore Chris Monsell who insists he’s not an actor, was recruited to help with the opening vignette from A Tale of Two Cities. As audience members waited in line to enter the house they could see Chris, clothed in a cape, on the second story porch, operating a guillotine. “I don’t have any lines, but I got to chop off my Dad’s head,” said Chris, who dropped the guillotine on his father Brian, cast as one of Dickens’ villains.
Other key players in the ensemble were local Lumina Studio Director David Minton, Blair High School drama director Kelly O’Connor, Shakespeare scholar John O’Connor and retired Coolidge High School drama director Judith Webb. Between them, they have a huge reservoir of knowledge about literary classics, acting, and directing – which is evident in the polished production.
One of the many unsung heroes of All Hallows Eve is retired IT professional Randy Roarke.
“He’s the man behind the curtain,” laughs Alderson. “We worked together, and when he retired I recruited him. He can build anything, solve any problem.” Other stalwarts returning year-to-year include gatekeepers Marcie Stickle and George French, who’ve spent many a frigid Halloween eve keeping peace on the sidewalk, and actress Kathie Mack. “She’s one of those people who’ll do anything you ask,” said Alderson about the production’s inimitable understudy.
At the end of the final skit (a bit from Dracula), the grim reaper appears in Caroline’s back bedroom. “I think your time is almost up,” he says, eyeing wary visitors. “It’s time to get your just desserts.”
Halloween candy was waiting on the back porch.