Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company
Written by Trevor Schmidt
Directed by Weylin Symes
Production Stage Management by E.D. Fitzgerald
Scene Design by Katy Monthei
Starring Annie Barbour
OCT 20 – NOV 5, 2023
395 Main Street
Stoneham, MA 02180
Critique by Gillian Daniels
STONEHAM, Mass. – We Had A Girl Before You takes all the ingredients of Gothic literature, mashes them into a paste, and uses the resulting substance as mortar to lay the bricks of a whole new rambling, haunted house. That rambling house is brought to life wonderfully by Production Stage Manager E.D. Fitzgerald and Scenic Designer Kathy Monthei. The manor evoked here becomes increasingly eerie through the talents of Sound Designer David Remedios. All the elements paired with the story culminate in a symphony of dread and, as a Gothic fan, I adored it.
Edwina “Weenie” Trout (Annie Barbour) is a spinster who’s just acquired a new job at an isolated manor. Barbour’s talent carries the show, but how could it not? She’s the only actress on stage. This can be hard to remember as she seamlessly embodies the other characters our heroine encounters, from a saucy barmaid to her rich, mysterious employer. The latter’s introduction is where the story really begins to build a sense of dread. Her new master, emotionally distant and alluring, gives us a Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre on steroids. Of course, Weenie is scared and enamored of him.
Weenie, alone, is a compelling central figure around which the story spins. It’s wonderful to watch her grow. Her naivete calls back to Jane Austen’s humorous Northanger Abbey, a novel itself parodying Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic literature, where the sheltered main character treats her real life like a suspenseful thriller until she realizes her favorite fiction is just that. Weenie is similarly prepared for an ominous world from the works she consumed during her orphaned upbringing. Like Northanger Abbey, the story begins with gentle mockery at the main character’s expense. Unlike that novel, Weenie’s fears appear to be well-founded.
We Had A Girl Before You is a world of Gothic genre conventions that, in many ways, delighted me to no end. This includes ghost sightings that make Weenie and the audience question her sanity, references to repulsive medical oddities like bezoars, and the overwhelming sense of mystery. This is my comfort zone. I understand there are people who aren’t as into these elements, which is fine, but I hesitate to recommend the show to them.
Still, it becomes distracting how much the story relies on these tropes. Along with Northanger Abbey and Jane Eyre, there’s a bit of Dracula when Weenie visits a local tavern near her employer’s rambling house and is warned away from the site by the locals. There’s a helping of Turn of the Screw as Weenie’s grip on reality slides away from her. I can see elements of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca in the troubled family histories that are uncovered.
In reference to dozens of paperback book covers, Weenie wanders through the house in a white nightgown with a lit candle. There is a forest of references that threaten to overcrowd what we’re watching. It’s when the narrative of We Had a Girl Before You has a chance to breathe by itself that it really takes wing.