Those intent on proving the existence of paranormal activity have always tended to provoke in me laughter as opposed to fear. Yet even my hair stood on end a few times while spending this past Sunday evening at Waverly Hills Sanitarium for Dark Hills Entertainment and Renegade Art Productions’ presentation of “Murder on the Hill,” an original murder mystery dinner theater written and directed by Herschel H. Zahnd III.
Not being a native of Louisville, I had no idea that Waverly Hills Sanitarium ever existed. The facility opened in 1926 as a hospital for those stricken with the almost certain death sentence of tuberculosis, and 63,000 people died there. Widely believed to be haunted, the legendary sanitarium has been the subject of exploration not only by owners Charles and Tina Mattingly’s daughter and friends, but also by the SciFi series “Ghost Hunters.” Both investigation clips are played on video after dinner — wonderfully catered by A Little Piece of Heaven. Quick suggestion: Play the video during the meal to set the mood and also alleviate any awkwardness lone theatergoers might have.
Following the meandering road up to Waverly is a little intimidating in and of itself. The “No Trespassing” signs and first glimpse of the imposing building fosters a creepy sense of foreboding. The play didn’t quite improve upon that air of eeriness, but that would’ve been a tall order, and this was opening night.
This is fairly standard murder mystery fare, but to its credit, music cues occur right on time, there are a few above-average performances, and the script includes some intrigue. The play concerns the contentious Waverly Hills staff as they await the arrival of a generous benefactor, though he’s murdered almost as soon as he checks in. Fingers are pointed at Edward Deetle, a schizophrenic patient, but it soon becomes clear someone of sounder mind is to blame.
Zahnd and Kent Carney (Edward Deetle) are to be commended for the burst of energy that opens the show. On that note, Carney takes a role that could easily become grossly over-the-top but instead turns in a measured portrayal. Chris Haulter (Dr. Stan Richards) is another actor of note, also presenting an uncontrived characterization.
Price of admission is a little steep ($40) for a play that breaks no new ground, but with half of all proceeds going to the Make A Wish Foundation, and the Waverly Hills Historical Society supporting it as part of its mission to restore a piece of Kentucky history, it is more palatable.