You can see “The Great Beyond” at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and have 90 percent of a unique experience. You can watch “The Ghost of Splinter Cove” at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and have 90 percent of another unique experience.
But unless you attend both of Steven Dietz’s world premieres, now running in tandem at ATC and CTC, you will miss something special. Kids below high school age may be satisfied with just the hour-long show aimed at them. But anyone older should see both – and see “Cove” second, to avoid spoiling a crucial moment of suspense in “Beyond.”
Dietz wants these plays to stand on their own, in case a theater company wants to produce only one.
In a narrative sense, they do: Adults remain on the ground floor of a house in “Beyond,” while their kids stay in the basement on the same night in “Cove.” Except for a few sound effects and shouts up and down a half-seen staircase, they don’t overlap physically.
Dietz does a remarkable job of packing backstories into the early moments of each, so you’re prepared for the supernatural events (or are they?) and emotional kick that come later in both.
Yet neither is complete in another sense. The Captain and Joseph, a father and son lost in the woods nearly 40 years ago, hover over each, figuratively in “Beyond” and literally in “Cove.” To fully appreciate the family dynamics and understand what happened on that unhappy night, you need the complete picture.
“Cove” is less ambiguous. Cora and Nate (Carman Myrick and Chester Shepherd) never knew their grandfather, who recently died in the house where they’re staying. Unseen adults upstairs, including long-absent Aunt Emily, discuss The Captain’s estate.
Meanwhile, the kids play with Sydney (Kayla Simone Ferguson), daughter of Emily’s partner, and their imaginary friend J (Arjun Pande). Nate wants them to go “camping,” using a deep-woods simulation on his phone that will help them imagine storms, darkness, trees. But J has a different plan and whisks them off to a spookily different place. (Kudos to Anita Tripathi, whose adaptable set lets us use our imagination in diverse ways.)
Upstairs in “Beyond,” tension clogs the atmosphere.
Monica (Tonya Bludsworth) took care of the Captain until he died and resents the way sister Emily (Robin Tynes-Miller) has sailed back into her life. (Their bickering boils over so often that it becomes off-putting, though Dietz eventually explains its causes.) Rex (Scott Tynes-Miller), Monica’s ex, tries to make peace. Rene (Tania Kelly), a professional medium and Emily’s partner, thinks bringing the Captain’s spirit back may help the women find harmony.
Perhaps they’ll be able to discuss older brother Joseph, who became a taboo subject after vanishing in the early 1980s.
Directors Chip Decker at ATC and Courtney Sale at CTC (who imported talent from Seattle, where she works) have subtly concealed and then revealed Dietz’ mysteries. Even before the opening of “Beyond,” we hear Santo and Johnny’s haunting “Sleepwalk,” an anthem mainly for the numb Monica but also in a way for unenlightened Emily. At one point, J pops up among the audience, making him more “real” to kids who may have wondered how he could influence physical objects.
The children’s drama, though never clumsily didactic, offers examples of positive behavior: Overcoming fear, trusting others, helping people in need without expecting a quid pro quo.
The lessons adults must learn are different: Forgiving yourself and others, accepting that we can’t (and don’t need to) know everything about the past. Both also share the main theme of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which by chance has arrived this week on its national tour: Characters have a desperate need to be understood.
The ghosts in “Cove” cannot rest until they have told their stories. The humans in “Beyond” cannot rest until they have revealed anxieties, reopened old wounds and brought closure to incidents that gave them pain. They don’t necessarily need to be loved or remembered, though that may result. They need to be known.
“The Great Beyond”
WHEN: Through April 6 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Also 2:30 p.m. March 24 (ASL-interpreted) and March 31.
WHERE: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 2132 Radcliffe Ave.
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes with one intermission.
TICKETS: $28-$43, with discounts for students, teachers and military.
DETAILS: 704-342-2251 or atcharlotte.org.
“The Ghost of Splinter Cove”
WHEN: Through April 7 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday (no 3 p.m. on April 6) and 2 p.m. Sunday. Sensory-friendly performance at 4 p.m. March 31.
WHERE: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.
RUNNING TIME: 60 minutes with no intermission.
DETAILS: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.