Samantha Mathis Returns Off Broadway In Duncan Sheik’s Haunting New Musical, ‘Whisper House’ (2024)

There was a time when Samantha Mathis stepped away from acting. At the age of 26 she had already been working as a professional actress for a decade. Mathis started her career in television when she was 16. By 19 she was cast in her first movie role. She had shown her mettle with films like Pump Up The Volume, Little Women and The American President.

“But I had gone through several deep losses at that point,” she shares. “The greatest was my mother who died when I was 26. I would walk into an audition room and have a panic attack. It was such an extreme I had ringing in my ears and couldn’t hear. I was incapable of being anything than a young woman in a lot pain mourning the loss of her mother.”

Finding it such huge hurdle to get past panic attacks that she had during auditions Mathis took a break from acting. When she was ready to dip her toe back into the water, her agent at the time suggested she meet with acting teacher, Lesly Kahn, who could help guide her back to the work.

Now a very successful teacher in Los Angeles, at that point Kahn was teaching from her little apartment off Melrose. “I sat on the floor in her living room and Lesly said, ‘we're going to work on a Shakespeare sonnet and figure out why you love acting. Because what is most important is that you find the joy in what you do again.”

For one month Mathis and Kahn worked on Shakespeare’s sonnet 116.

“Love is not love. Which alters when it alteration finds. Or bends with the remover to remove. O no! It is an ever-fixed mark. That looks on tempests and is never shaken….”

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“Lesly guided me towards falling in love with language. It reminded me that my initial love with acting was through theater,” says Mathis. A third generation actress, her grandmother, Gusti Huber had played Anne Frank’s mother in the original production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Her mother Bibi Besch had a thriving career in TV and film. "I always saw Broadway and off-Broadway shows with my mother and my grandmother,” she adds. “The experience doing the sonnet reminded me that I hadn't paid any attention to my initial dream of being on stage.”

Through the course of working with Kahn Mathis got cast in Donald Margulies’ two-person play Collected Stories acting opposite theater titan Linda Lavin and was directed by Gil Cates.“Lesly said, ‘You couldn't have gotten a nice ensemble? You had to go get a “f#*king two-hander with Linda Lavin? I thought, ‘well, trial by fire.’”

Since igniting with her passion for theater, Mathis has dazzled on Broadway, off Broadway and around the country. Just a few of her theater credits includes The Man Who Had All the Luck, 33 Variations with Jane Fonda, Uncle Vanya, Love Loss and What I Wore and Make Believe.

Currently Mathis plays Lily, a stoic lighthouse keeper who keeps everything close to the vest in the haunting new musical Whisper House. Lily is thoroughly ill prepared to let herself fall in love or take care of a child who comes into her life. Presented by The Civilians, the show is all about souls trying to connect.

Whisper House was written by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening,American Psycho) and Kyle Jarrow (Spongebob Squarepants, The Broadway Musical,The Wildness), and was directed by Steve Cosson.Now playing at 59E59 Theaters in New York City, the cast also featuresAlex Boniello, Jeb Brown,Wyatt Cirbus,Molly Hagerand James Yaegashi.

Whisper House takes place in a mysterious and eerie lighthouse off the coast of Maine. Except for Lily and Yasuhiro, (James Yaegashi), the man who works for her, they are the only living souls in this desolate locale. WWII has just begun, xenophobia has bubbled to the surface. Yasuhiro, a Japanese immigrant, is not welcome nor safe. Things get even more difficult when Lily is forced to care for her young nephew who has come to stay. And in the midst of all this two ghosts (Molly Hager, AlexBoniello), with the most luminous singing voices, hover close—almost like a Greek chorus.

“Lily has dedicated her life to be of service and that is certainly a noble thing. Unfortunately it's also kept her very isolated,” says Mathis. “She has not allowed herself to dream bigger in any way. The journey we see Lily go through is her heart starting to a crack open and perhaps begin to let more love in.”

Jeryl Brunner: Even though she seems to have a tough exterior you give Lily so much heart and make us care for Lily. What qualities does she have that you adore?

Samantha Mathis: Lily is a survivor. She is a strong woman living in the lighthouse. And despite the fact that she makes a self-deprecating comment about her sense of humor, I think she does have one. Lily is a wounded soul who has cobbled together a little life—one that has great purpose with Yasuhiro before the boy arrives. The import of lighthouses keeping people on the sea safe was huge. Particularly back in those times—pre-automation, pre-cell phone, internet and radios.

I did research about people who lived in light houses and found they really dedicated their lives to it. I read a story where a husband, on his deathbed, said something like, "keep the light lit” to his wife. It really consumed people's existence in those times. And the import of keeping people safe, being of service, was the beacon in theirexistence.

Brunner: Why do you believe the story resonates today?

Mathis: For me it resonates even more than two years ago. [Whisper House was originally scheduled to begin performances the week of the shutdown in March 2020.]The play talks about the danger of othering people. In times of crises there is a terrible human instinct to point towards someone else as the problem. We have unfortunately seen that in spades over the last two years during this Covid-19 outbreak. People have wanted to blame people of Asian descent, Chinese people in particular.

This material resonates even more as a reflection of how ignorant we can be. During the 1940s we put Japanese Americans into concentration camps. That was a terrible tragedy.I don't recall being educated about this. The United States is a wonderful place but we’re also an extremely young and complicated country. We put people into concentration camps, ripped them from their homes, their businesses, their families, and other-ed them based on the color of their skin and appearance. I'm glad this story talks about it.

Brunner: You mentioned that the production didn’t want a professional singer to play Lily. Why was that so?

Mathis: It was presented to me that the fragility of Lily’s humanity would come through more with a non- singer. They didn't want Lily to suddenly burst out into extraordinary song. There is fragility in Lily when she sings. And it’s the same for same for Yasuhiro. James Yaegashi is not a musical theater person. These are flawed human mortals who sing these songs as opposed to the ghosts who are sort of otherworldly on the other side and come through with these gorgeous voices.

Samantha Mathis Returns Off Broadway In Duncan Sheik’s Haunting New Musical, ‘Whisper House’ (2024)

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