As director Catherine Ming T’ien Duffy states plainly in her note about the play: The Brothers Paranormal is, at its core, a ghost story. It’s spelled out in the title and in the opening moments when Max (Samson Syharath), a young Thai American living in the Midwest, consults Delia (Andrea White), a shaken woman displaced by Hurricane Katrina, about how he may or may not find the spectral presence that is haunting her apartment.
Duffy and the Coho team do an impressive job steering into the scarier aspects of Paranormal. There’s a healthy jump scare at the very start of the play, and their use of lighting, fog, and sound effects throughout—like the subwoofers that rumble the audience at key moments—suck all the calm out of the room. (White’s believably terrified performance only adds extra layers of dread to the proceedings.)
Of course, Paranormal isn’t simply a ghost story. It is also a story of cultural displacement, erasure, addiction, and mental health. And that’s exactly where playwright Prince Gomolvilas struggles. The issues are definitely worth exploring in a theatrical setting, and using the backdrop of a horror story is a welcome, if familiar, turn. But it's also the shakiest element of the play.
It's not that Gomolvilas overdoes it either. The friction of Max's inability to speak his family’s native tongue or accept some of their cultural practices comes out in small exchanges with his mom (Elaine Low) and his older brother Visarut (Lidet Viravong). The same can be said for the discomfort Delia and her husband Felix (Jasper Howard) feel about being so far away from their home in New Orleans. If anything, Paranormal's societal themes get lost amid the ghostly stuff and fumbling questions about Delia’s sanity.
Paranormal's scenarios are often unnatural, and, at this early stage in the play’s run, the cast hadn't comfortably settled into the material. But a few actors made the script feel more realistic. White fares best in this; her fragile composure courses through her body language. Likewise, her on-stage partner Howard is fantastic throughout, loose and playful with dialogue that other actors might weigh down with capital 'A' acting.
The show is served best by Coho’s technical team, who make great use of the smaller confines of the theater. Lighting designer Miranda K. Hardy and sound designer Ryan Gamblin deserve a special shout out for supporting the scary scenes—especially in the first act when the play jumps between a terrifying confrontation and a quiet conversation—to skin-crawling effect.
Paranormal is the first collaboration between CoHo Productions and MediaRites' Theatre Diaspora—Oregon’s only professional Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) theatre company. Founded in 2014, in response to a lack of AAPI visibility in Oregon's performing arts scene, Theatre Diaspora has worked to establish AAPI artists, playwrights, and audiences, which is why I watched this preview performance surrounded by guests of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO)' Asian Family Center.
Despite the strong performances and thrilling stage effects, I must admit that Paranormal still ultimately left me cold, which is both just what you want from a bone-chilling ghost story and what you don’t want for a play that looks to express some bitter realities of living life in society’s margins.