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Liftoff: Lizzi Jones, who plays a ghost child, works with special-effects expert Isaac Faust (center) and production director Nick Nichols.

Of Ghosts And Guns

San Jose Rep dramatizes the haunting life of remodeling queen and gun heiress Sarah Winchester

By Marianne Messina

FINALLY, a new musical that's not only not about New York but is set in San Jose. To celebrate its 25th season, San Jose Repertory Theatre has commissioned a local work, The Haunting of Winchester, with music by local composer Craig Bohmler and featuring San Jose's very own local legend (and historical landmark), the Winchester Mystery House.

A few contemporary interviews provide all we know about Sarah Winchester, the woman who funded over 30 years of 24/7 construction on the sprawling mansion at 525 S. Winchester Blvd. Legend has it that after losing her 6-week-old daughter and later her Winchester rifle magnate husband, the Connecticut native saw a medium who told her she must go west and build a house, and that she would live as long as construction continued on the house.

Director Michael Butler assures me that The Haunting of Winchester starts from the legend about an "eccentric woman [who] builds kooky house because she believes she's haunted by ghosts of people killed by the Winchester rifle, but then spins some very eccentric variations of its own."

Mary Bracken Phillips wrote the book and lyrics for the musical using the vast unknown to her advantage. "Mary literally made this up," says Craig Bohmler, who chose Phillips to write the words. "It is a fable, if you will, where she included the architectural designs as a place to clarify [Mrs. Winchester's] character and drive the plot. Where facts were known, they were included as well, and we tried not to mess with those facts." When sticking to the facts, what can't be invented is the Winchester House's quirky architecture, since maybe half the audience will have been inside the real item and been amazed by its zigzagging staircases and doors opening to 8-foot drops.

Butler, invited on board the project two years ago as dramaturge and director, thinks of Mrs. Winchester as an artist and the house as her "large body of work." In fact, he broke with his directorial style to accommodate it. "I usually like to find a fairly expressionistic way to devise a play, but this is, after all, a story about Sarah Winchester, so I felt I had to attempt some architecture."

The Haunting of Winchester reaches beyond the pure ghost story. Appropriate to a woman who lived in her artwork and never received a single guest (even Teddy Roosevelt was denied), the story explores a woman's inward journey and her dealings with issues like personal responsibility. "As she becomes more aware of the rifle's legacy," says Butler, "she becomes more self-aware, and so she begins to transform, to renovate herself really, not just her house."

The ghostly elements (including some flying scenes) themselves have a touching quality beyond the proverbial bump in the night. Bohmler (adding a new song as late as two weeks before previews "for a theatrical moment that just wasn't working") has brought these nuances to the music. "Because the piece is dark, funny, ironic and sometimes sad," Bohmler explains, "finding a musical framework to accommodate all the styles needed was tricky. It at once wants a country kind of sound, but then must be able to push into dramatic textures as well as passionate ones."

But Bohmler maintains space for the traditional "spooky" sounds as well. "The ghost music presents itself at the top of the show with the toy piano and odd effects in the orchestra—also in the songs 'Something Is Wrong With This House' and 'When I Died,'" Bohmler reveals. "The little girl Marissa gives us riddles throughout the show, and they are creepy."

Tamra Hayden will play Sarah Winchester, the diminutive woman with the towering personality (4-foot-10 according to historians and persnickety according to her servants). "She brings a tremendous range and complexity to the character of Sarah," says Butler. And complexity may be the delightful, surprising ingredient in this San Jose ghost story.

The Haunting of Winchester previews Wednesday at noon and 8pm and Thursday at 8pm and opens Friday at 8pm at the San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $15-$50. (www.sjrep.com)

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From the September 7-13, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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