‘The Pine’ at once quirky and wistful

Catastrophic Theatre has had such a strong track record with the works of maverick Chicago playwright Mickle Maher, I was a little worried heading into the company's world premiere of Maher's "The Pine" on Wednesday night.

Catastrophic's three previous Maher outings, beginning with "The Strangerer" in 2008, constituted the proverbial tough act to follow. What if the new work didn't make as strong an impression?

I needn't have worried. Maher's latest, if a tad unwieldy, is as smart, idiosyncratic and original as his earlier works, and arguably most ambitious of all. Catastrophic artistic director Jason Nodler and his company again demonstrate their understanding of Maher's quirkily skewed universe.

In "The Pine," Maher spins a wistful/loopy fairy tale that is poetic, romantic, philosophical and metaphysical – sometimes all at once.

The haunted setting is a ghostly hotel that serves as a way station between life and death for souls who have lost their greatest loves and can never cease grieving. Mourning hero Gordon attempts to follow his girlfriend, Danelle, who's committed suicide, and finds himself trapped in a labyrinth of infinite rooms. Gordon confronts various bizarre figures as he tries to find Danelle, break the hotel's spell and contrive some way for them both to check out.

That simplified synopsis hardly conveys the complex and multifarious proceedings. Clara, a narrator, is telling the story from a book she's written, so there's that story-within-the-story reality or fantasy dimension. Her husband, Lambert, who built the hotel 100-plus years earlier, also figures prominently. The blustering yet ineffectual knight, Morris the Hesitant, becomes Gordon's ally, while scheming demon Clave serves as the hero's chief adversary. Death, also known as Steve the gardener, plays a key role, too.

Maher's plot echoes the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Yet a more pervasive influence is the poetry of Emily Dickinson – particularly in her expressions of sorrow and grief, her conviction they endure unhealed by time. There are allusions to such famous lines as "Hope is the thing with feathers" and "I heard a fly buzz when I died." Indeed, a fly motif buzzes through the play.

In this premiere staging, "The Pine" registers as slightly overstuffed – not as tight or tonally consistent as "There Is a Happiness That Morning Is," though at its best it is as resonant and deeply felt. Maher lets the narrator carry the ball quite a way into Act 1; fine as those passages are, it might be useful to give more voice to the other leads a bit sooner. Overall, the play is never less than intriguing, but a bit of streamlining would give it a stronger sense of focus.

Nodler and his cast bring conviction to everything the characters do, however improbable. They also make the most of Maher's tongue-in-cheek comic touches.

Troy Schulze is well cast as melancholy Gordon, managing to be at once mopey, ironic and heroic. Patricia Duranacts the understated role of Danelle with brooding intensity and severity.

Amy Bruce does excellent work as storyteller Clara, both inveigling and foreboding. Greg Dean blusters and bumbles hilariously as grandiose Morris. Jeff Miller revels in the gleeful villainy of smarmy Clave. George Brock's emphatic delivery lends authority to Lambert. Noel Bowers blends affability and subtle sarcasm as Steve.

Nodler delivers a beautifully atmospheric production, capitalizing on the strong sense of mood in the writing. That's our cue to praise Laura Fine Hawkes' fantastic set. Exquisitely detailed and evocative, it summons the haunted hotel perfectly, with its antique sepia tones and peeling wallpaper. Tiffani Fuller's costumes aptly run the gamut from plain to storybook fanciful. Kirk Markley's lighting is both expert and evocative.

You leave "The Pine" feeling as though you've awakened from some strange and elaborate dream. You may not know what it meant, just that there are truths in it, and the whole thing will stay with you for a while.