Review: Spooks at PACA

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re stuck at a family reunion in 1986, floundering with discomfort as your elderly relatives struggle to recall any semblance of fact, while your Great Aunt Jean spends way too much time at the wine counter and your Second-Cousin-Twice-Removed-Or-Something Dorothy casually flirts with a priest. Now imagine that you could, instead, watch this scenario unfold from the neighbors’ window. There’s an unmatched hilarity with experiencing the revelations and agonies of a family gathering, especially when it’s not your own family and the family doesn’t know you’re there. This is the gift that is Spooks

A comedy by local playwright Richard Boler, Spooks has been performed in this area for over thirty years, which alone speaks to its success. In this current production, director Richard Davis brings to fruition “the haunting of the Skowronski sisters” on PACA’s stage, crafting a hilarious homage to Erie and its history. Let’s first talk about that stage, for the gaudy pastels, neon glows, and Jesus-chic living room make for a plunge straight into the 80s. Jeff Hill was responsible for the set design, a vibrant example of immersive theatre. With the couches arranged like any natural room—some facing away from the audience—it’s truly as though you’re peering into the living space of a seventy-year-old Polish woman. It almost makes you feel like you aren’t supposed to be there, and how great is that: the fabrication of theatrical rebellion.

There’s an undebatable reason to see this show, however, and that is the cast. Very few scripts allow for theaters to showcase the talents of actors solely in the senior demographic, and it is a privilege to watch them combine forces in this capacity. Bob Dombrowski, the narrator, has performed in every production of Spooks since its inception, which has amounted to over 110 performances. This longevity is unsurprising, for Dombrowski delivers long passages of narration with ease. He’s like that great uncle at the reunion who has already told everyone his family’s personal affairs, but lo and behold! Here comes his nephew’s new untarnished girlfriend, with whom he can spill the tea once more. The audience, as that collective new girlfriend, couldn’t get enough of his excitement and sincerity.

Teresa Testrake (Pearl), takes on the role of the reunion host that is overly concerned about every possible thing, whether it be the particular household cleaner she should use, or which dead family member is currently lurking in her closet. She keeps the haunted subplot alive with her anxious mannerisms and constant state of dread, and you’re honestly just hoping she’s going to be okay. I have witnessed my aunt strive to host many a trauma-free gathering in her home, so I know firsthand that Testrake did the role justice.

Then you have the one who surely thought she’d be done with family reunions by now. Josie, played by Betsy Butoryak, is the surly, no-nonsense oldest sister who has the crowd wailing with laughter from the second she shoves herself through the door, despising everything about her current predicament. What a great sense of physical humor Butoryak has, from her exaggerated love-hate relationship with her walker to her full-body scoffs. 

Photo Credit: M. Harrison Photography

Skowronski sister Irene Rose (Jacilyn Snyder), is the baby of the bunch, still holding on to that naive sense of hopelessness and propriety that her siblings have ditched long ago.To me, this role is about struggling to be convincing, and it’s difficult to act like you’re struggling to act. Snyder does that well. And of course no family reunion is complete without the loopy, senile one. The one everyone knows they can’t fully trust but still fully do. The marvelous Linda Kemp, who bears the habit of Sister Attilia, brings a sense of youth to a story that centers around the struggles of aging, and it is a joy to see. Wayne Gardner also takes on a holy role in Father Wisinski, and he is pitiable. He’s like the neighbor who was somehow reeled into the reunion and is just trying to make it home alive. Gardner gives an endearing performance that captures his relationship with these sisters over many years of exorcism. 

But for me, the show-stopping performance is from Coreen Scott, who embodies the bold and brazen Annie, or the relative who is only there for the liquor. She’s the one who shows up in a nylon tracksuit because she has zero concern about anyone’s judgement but her own. That’s exactly how Coreen plays the role: unafraid to not care. Anyone who can steal the show by simply ducking behind a counter is someone you want to see on stage. Like Butoryak, her sense of physical humor is absolute gold, and I’m genuinely concerned that some audience members are still passed out somewhere in the PACA building from excessive laughter.

Photo Credit: M. Harrison Photography

Spooks is a hysterical, brilliant, and relatable show, not just for older crowds, but for anyone with a seventy-year-old in their life. This cast, under the direction of Davis, captures the nuances of family get-togethers with convincing and overlapping dialogue, frequently interrupted by old lady tangents and “high stress” moments involving dogs, spills, the inability to move, and yes, an unwelcome ghostly presence. This is a show that I beg you not to miss, and you have three more chances to follow through: Spooks continues at PACA May 5-7. Go relish in the haunting of these five sisters who you might just end up inviting to your next anniversary barbecue.

SPOOKS by Richard Boler
Directed by Richard Davis

May 5-7, 2023

Location & Time:
PACA Theatre
1505 State St., 2nd Floor, Erie, PA

Friday & Saturday: Doors: 7:00pm • Curtain: 7:30pm
Sunday Matinee: Doors: 1:30pm • Curtain: 2:00pm

– Brenna Thummler
Spotlight 814

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