WESTERLY — If a theater company wants to produce a show for Halloween, it makes sense to find a director who embraces the holiday and the stories it engenders.
John Cillino checks both boxes, which bodes well for “The Haunting of Hill House,” opening Friday at the Granite Theatre. In fact, he’s the one who suggested putting the play on the schedule.
“I’ve always enjoyed Halloween,” he says, “and I had read the play and thought it was good.” With the theater’s official re-opening for live performances overlapping with Halloween, plans fell into place.
The play is based on a novel of the same name written by Shirley Jackson, an American writer known for works of mystery and horror. A Netflix series shares the title and a few characters, Cillino says, but the play stays closer to the book.
“It’s creepy, not horror or jump scares,” he says.
The story is set in a remote location, at a house avoided by anyone who has heard stories of forbidding events occurring there. For many years, the only person to frequent the property is a cantankerous caretaker, Mrs. Dudley.
That is until Dr. Montague, who investigates supernatural phenomena, is granted access in order to explore the morbid history of the house and alleged occult forces that have made it uninhabitable. Joining him are three more people, all unacquainted but with their own reasons for joining the doctor’s investigation.
Initial pleasantries are overshadowed by several eerie occurrences. As fears increase, Dr. Montague’s wife and a friend arrive to try to communicate directly with the house’s spirits, a type of psychic research the doctor does not welcome. The activity brings on a crisis and, for one of those present, death.
“The suspense,” Cillino says, “is that as things begin to happen, no one is sure if it’s the house or the people there. Who is really causing it?”
There is no suspense in his mind about his cast. They include Caitlin Robert and George Sanchez, both of whom have appeared previously in Granite Theatre productions, and newcomers Wylette Selvideo, Ralph Stokes, Tristan Cole, Irene Handren and Katherine Kimmel.
Auditions had produced a wealth of talent. “I could have cast the show twice,” Cillino says. “I had to turn away great people.” But he is pleased with the way those who made the cut “are inhabiting their roles.”
Along with his enthusiasm for Halloween and spooky stories, Cillino brings years of experience as an actor and director since he got involved at the Granite in 2003.
“I didn’t know anything about acting or directing,” says the director, whose vocation is as a tax attorney. “David and Beth Jepson took me under their wing and taught me.” The Jepsons are retired directors of the theater.
Since then, he estimates he has acted in about 40 shows at the Granite, most recently the 2019 production of “Barefoot in the Park,” and directed several Agatha Christie plays.
“The Haunting of Hill House” runs Oct. 8-31 at the Granite Theatre, 1 Granite St. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, $17 for seniors. Patrons will be asked to show proof of COVID vaccination or a negative COVID test, and to wear a mask while they are in the theater. For details or to make reservations, call the box office at (401) 596-2341 or visit www.granitetheatre.com.