In a sense, The Brothers Paranormal is a fitting play for springtime: It touches on themes of hope, renewal, and change. However, it also happens to be a ghost story with the kind of jarring surprises that usually only come out at Halloween.
The play’s regional premiere is now onstage at Penumbra Theatre, in a first-ever co-production between that company and Theater Mu. Writer Prince Gomolvilas imagines an intersection between a Thai-American family and an African-American couple; unusual circumstances highlight parallels between their experiences of dislocation.
The story, which balances levity and tragedy, opens on a lighter note. Brothers Max (Sherwin Resurreccion) and Visarut (Kurt Kwan) finally have a client for their fledgling paranormal investigation business, which salesman Max thinks is essentially a sham. He gleefully swipes a credit card belonging to Delia (Regina Marie Williams), who’s been hearing a ghost... one that quite unexpectedly speaks Thai.
Delia’s husband, Felix (James Craven), is entertaining a few different theories as to why a black American woman would be haunted by a Thai ghost, but one he’s hoping isn’t true is that Delia is experiencing the kind of hallucinations her mother had due to mental illness. Max says the brothers’ mother (Leslie Ishii), who immigrated from Thailand, has had a similar diagnosis, and the amateur ghostbusting starts to take on new dimensions.
That’s only the starting point of a story that keeps twisting and turning all the way to the end. There’s an apparition, all right (in the person of a nimble and ferocious Michelle de Joya), but not everyone sees her and Gomolvilas keeps us guessing as to her true nature. Director Lou Bellamy keeps the energy crackling for the scary scenes, with the help of some hair-raising stagecraft.
Fundamentally, though, Bellamy and his cast know that we’ll believe what the actors convince us they see. Completely committed performances draw us fully into this unsettling world, with particularly touching work from Williams and Craven as a deeply loving couple whose latest trauma is not their first. An acerbic yet sympathetic Resurreccion anchors his character’s family unit, which has unexpected revelations of its own.
Opening during Mental Health Awareness Month, The Brothers Paranormal may inspire varied reactions from those who have experienced the illnesses described onstage. On one hand, Gomolvilas makes a careful point of encouraging compassion and distinguishing clinical depression from ordinary sadness. On the other hand, the play deliberately blurs lines between hallucinations and literal ghosts in a way that creates a suspenseful plot at the expense of a more substantive consideration of what it actually means to live with mental illness.
Ambitiously encompassing topics including climate change and economic inequality, The Brothers Paranormal takes on a lot—but then, so do many families such as these. The show largely succeeds, thanks to a well-crafted, often amusing script, and to strong performances that keep these characters grounded even when they’re climbing the walls.
The Brothers Paranormal
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
651-224-3180; through May 26
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