The stage for “Anna, in the Darkness” looks like your basement. In fact it is a basement—that of Dream Theatre’s indistinctive building on 18th Street. The distinctiveness is to be found below ground, in the form of dusty rugs, clutter on the shelves, and a moose head your dad bought twenty years ago that was immediately deemed inappropriate for the aesthetic of the living room. There are only about twenty seats in the room, half of them in the front row—not quite the intimacy of “Anna’s” sister production, also written by Jeremy Menekseoglu, wherein only four audience members are allowed at a time, one of whom must prominently interact with the performers. The title of that play, “Audience Annihilated Part Two,” channels Dream Theatre’s expressed goal: to shatter the barrier between actor and audience.
“Anna in the Darkness” is a one-person show about a woman of questionable psychological stability, as she lies awake in the wee hours of the morning, haunted. She tells us she is cursed. The townspeople are out to get her for an unrevealed (at least at first) reason, cutting her power, creeping around her house in the middle of the night, shouting at Anna and throwing notes tied to bricks through the window. She claims she’s been ostracized from the school—she’s a special education teacher—and her church, where the pastor has denounced her as satanic. The turmoil is nothing new to Anna—we learn that her past was equally as tormented as her present. Tonight, though, is the end: the latest brick reads, “3 A.M.” The audience is left to wonder how Anna could ever deserve the torture she’s being subjected to, and whether anyone’s actually out to get her after all.
The play’s runtime is a brisk forty-five minutes, and Megan Merrill, as Anna, captures and holds the audience’s attention for every second. Her performance masterfully reiterates the all-too-common notion of the hysterical woman. When, toward the beginning of the play, Anna reads out a death threat in a subtle southern accent, one imagines inbred, Bible-thumping, “Deliverance”-esque enemies out to get her for preaching, like, feminism or something. But Merrill doesn’t let you dwell on this while the lights are off. She shivers on the stage, clutching her tattered clothes, fidgeting, scurrying around the basement, collapsing into a small heap when a scream comes out of nowhere. Anna blurts out everything in stream-of-consciousness, confiding in us about her strange encounters with the townsfolk and nervously commenting on the voices and noises in a wide-eyed, stammering way that calls her sanity into question.
It should go without saying that the show is scary. Sudden screams and loud noises sporadically interrupt Anna’s narration, putting everyone in the room on edge. Anna looks terrified, and she makes you feel terrified, too. It’s a testament to Merrill’s ability to immerse the audience that the dream sequences, with creepy narration ripped from what sounds like a movie, cause you to grip your armrest rather than make you giggle from the cheesiness.
“Anna, in the Darkness” is something of a Halloween tradition at Dream Theatre, and it suits its role well. It doesn’t offer an innovative plot or any new insight about women, sanity, or social outcasts, but Megan Merrill, by the force of her will, tears you away from your world and brings you into Anna’s, to hear a scary story on a chilly October night.