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Miami University’s Intimate and Personal “Echoes of Miami” is a Gripping Haunt

Review by Sean Maus of Echoes of Miami: Miami University

In its season opener, Miami University’s College of Creative Arts has unleashed an emotional, sensationally gripping thriller.

The myths, legends, and history of Miami and Oxford literally echo through time in this original concept collection of short plays written by the current and former students of the theatre program. The question “How do we understand the history of the place where we stand?” is the evening’s examination. The production begins outside the College of Creative Arts where we learn the language, poetry, passion and history of the Myaami tribe whose ancestors cared for the land  that is currently the home of Miami University in Oxford.  This is a place where many people have lived and are no longer remembered.

Through 7 different “plays within the play” the performances take the audience on a journey through many voices: voices of women in an asylum once on the grounds of the campus, a man of the underground railroad, clergymen leading the people of Hopewell Church, the students who have mysteriously disappeared and murdered one of their own, teachers filling the famous lecture-recitals in the late 19th Century, the voices of roommates who learn a lesson about taunting the infamous ghost(s) of Helen Peabody. We’re led through the production and around the college campus by three incarnations of Helen Peabody who was the first head of Miami University’s Western College — her portrait still hangs in Peabody Hall, a girls’ dormitory named after her.

What makes this piece of theatre so striking is its multiple locations – not an easy choice to make logistically. The play takes place throughout locations on and about the College of Creative Arts.   Also, the profound amount of history that is inventive and curious that emerges through some powerful writing.  While many of the stories are steeped in lore, the good old-fashioned ghost story tour feels urgent and deeply, painfully human.  Each playwright and director exert supreme control of their stories, locations and characters.  The actors are inventive and curious about what the character can reveal and how they reveal it.  Yet, there’s a little signature chilly touch of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Twilight Zone” here.

While the audience may not be prepared to brave the crisp night air outside the college, the opening scene “This is Myaamionki” is a colorful spectacle of specters. We’re transported from modern Miami through Alex, a current student who is more interested in taking a selfie — portrayed by a cute sprite of an actress Anna Hernandez-Buces as she meets time-traveling Myaamia tribe members, and is introduced to our spirit guides in the many forms of Helen Peabody. While some of the performers took a while to warm up, especially given the outside temperature, there were some time-worn textures to actress Maddy Shilts’s Man-Hating Helen.  Historic Helen, played by Laura Smith, has an ebullience that brought a powerful chemistry to her compatriot Defender Helen who is eerily empathetic as they introduce us to “The Haunting in Peabody Hall.”

If I had to pick from the stories, my choices would be “Murder at Reid Hall” and “Delirium.” These two stories brought a real sense of mystery and emotion to the core of my being. “Delirium” focused on the maltreated women patients in mental asylums at the time of 1925. Taking place in storage space beneath the main stage theatre you are treated to a spooky  haunt with chilling spirits portrayed by Nellie Given (Woman of Electricity), Megan Hayes (Woman of the Window), Meghan Stille (Woman of Solitude) and Jessie Beach (Woman of Chains). If the staging doesn’t creep you out, the sunken, manic eyes of these actresses will haunt you.

“Murder at Reid Hall” is a Twilight Zone throwback to the 1950’s complete with a James Dean infused performance by Worley Stidham.  Eleanor Alger brings the cheating Sharon to life with just the right tinge of bouffant hair while shrieking like the best of the horror film drive-in movie girls of the 1950’s.  Kevin Garcia was perfectly cast as the average 50’s teen –  moody, confused, and finding himself, who probably was enjoying dancing, spending time with friends, often at a malt (milkshake) shop.

Then, there’s the fun haunted house feel of the “Haunting in Peabody 237” which brings a bit of humor to the haunting. Rylan Hixson as Cam and his roommate Kevin Garcia as Andy, were roommates in Peabody Hall. The set decoration was straight our of a men’s college dorm, complete with Xbox, sweaty socks and bags of chips scattered on the floor. Garcia and Hixson show their terrific versatility as actors having gone from dramatic roles in previous sections (“An Evening withe Snyders” and “Murder at Reid Hall” respectively) to turning on the comedic charm as two roommates. Beyond excellent acting technique the two young actors have a genuine connection. They make it  so much easier to produce riveting results on stage without looking contrived. Both are astute and close observers of human nature even though they are playing roles similar to their own lives. But it’s watching the transformation of these two from their earlier roles of the evening into roles that come back to haunt them.

Even though the stories change, the show generally keeps working with the same stuff. It’s twisting tales of supernatural fears and everyday horrors that explore the deep history of the Miami campus.  For being in development for four years, according to producer Saffron Henke’s note in the program, the efforts have paid off.

Echoes of Miami is the sort of risk-taking show that comes along seemingly only in Fringe Festivals.  Credit the Miami theatre team with bringing the tonal leaps and shifts in time and place to making this college a place of great theater that is a diamond in the crown of Cincinnati area theatre.