'Unspeakable Things' takes messy look at Wandrei brothers

John Middleton as Donald Wandrei.

John Middleton as Donald Wandrei.

Developed by a full host of collaborators, Unspeakable Things: The Wandrei Brothers Project, is often a giddy mess, racing along with ideas, moments, and images that often outstrip the show's bare structure. The Sandbox Theatre production is far from perfect, but it hits more often than it misses and is definitely an intriguing set of first steps in exploring the lives of two singular Minnesotans.

Brothers Donald and Howard Wandrei were part of the pulp science fiction, mystery, and horror scene of the early and mid 20th century. Donald was friends with H.P. Lovecraft, wrote poetry and fiction, and co-founded the influential small press Arkham House with August Derleth (another subject worthy of an onstage exploration). Howard eventually wrote more than his brother, but his real talents were as an illustrator.


Though both spent time living elsewhere, each were heavily connected to the family home in St. Paul. Unspeakable Things is set amid the debris and clutter of that household, which aptly reflects the state of Donald's mind as he recalls several critical life events throughout the production, sometimes playing out the same scene over and over again. Key among these are moments on the frozen World War II battlefields of Europe, confrontations with his perpetually ill sister Jeannette, and the discovery that Howard is writing and using Donald's publisher.

The elliptical structure, with memories repeating, sometimes with additional details or just in a completely different form, allows for insight into the fractured lives of the characters. It does not, however, completely hold one's attention, especially near the end. The play could have ceased anywhere in the last 25 minutes, as there was no ultimate conflict to resolve or secret to reveal.

That doesn't make the evening a failure by any means. There are some particularly striking moments, from Jeannette's appearance as a creature that could have been drawn from one of Howard's illustrations, or a wall of boxes that become much more in Don's mind.

The performances are strong throughout as well, led by John Middleton as Donald. On the stage for the entire play, Middleton leads us through the layers and veils of a character in search of a core that we never quite find. The performance is important, as it's the only anchor we have from beginning to end. Without Middleton's rock-solid work, the audience would be left completely rudderless through the show, darting from scene to scene with no sense of cohesion.

Unspeakable Things is far from perfect -- it most definitely feels like a piece still in progress -- but there's so much that is interesting here (and in the related works that have been completed, including an EP of songs inspired by the brothers' lives and creations) that there is hopefully more to be seen in the future.

Unspeakable Things runs through Saturday at the Red Eye Theatre.