Possessed of one hundred and sixty rooms including thirteen bathrooms, six kitchens, dozens of stairways and thousands of doors and windows, whether the mansion at 525 South Winchester Boulevard, San Jose, California is possessed of any ghosts is another matter, but known as the Winchester Mystery House it certainly has a reputation, though again there is a question of how much of what is said is accurate.
Written and performed by Wendy Weiner in an upstairs room accessed by spiral staircase of the similarly sprawling though not quite so expansive Gothic labyrinth of Edinburgh’s Teviot Row House and directed by Ryan Amador, Mystery House is an exploration not only of the history of the house and its owner, Sarah “Sallie” Winchester, widow of repeating firearms merchant William Winchester, but also of American history particularly Abraham Lincoln and his own misunderstood widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, “the Yoko Ono of the Civil War.”
Mary Lincoln and Sallie Winchester both having found some measure of comfort in the spiritualist movement, the promise of the spirit of their lost beloved persisting in some way beyond the veil, Weiner is linked to both women who lost husbands and children through her own experiences of loss and profound grief, the architecture of the Winchester Mystery House as it is now known the framework around which she has wrapped her own personal tragedies.
Weiner’s story taking precedence over the premise as presented, the digressions are at times jarring, the sudden switch from the ongoing building projects supposedly intended to keep the spirits at bay to a day at Disneyland lacking any segue, but accepted for what it actually is Mystery House is a powerful and well-performed piece of theatre, the slight blurring of the edges to emphasise a more commercial angle understandable when a handful of extra seats sold can make a huge difference to any show trying to break even.
Engaging throughout with her knowledge of her subjects and ability to articulate event and emotion, beyond the verifiable facts Weiner also offers her own insights into both Mrs Winchester and Mrs Lincoln, suggesting that both were women born in the wrong time which could not appreciate them, dismissed as mad and locked in the attic of history based on no evidence other than hearsay and the disapproval of the men who sought to control them.
Mystery House runs at Gilded Balloon Teviot until Monday 28th August