Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Sandra Oh and a Cast of Downtown All-Stars Illuminate a Period Thriller

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Early in “The Welkin,” the British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s period thriller, now at the Linda Gross Theatre, a dozen women appear in something like an eighteenth-century diorama: they are arranged in bas-relief against a black curtain, each obsessively performing a single task. Whump, whump, whump goes a carpet beater; scrape, scrape, scrape grinds a brush against the floor. It’s a cliché, of course, that “women’s work” is backbreaking and soul-crushing, but Kirkwood, who also wrote the Tony-nominated play “The Children”—in which retired nuclear scientists consider sacrificing themselves to shut down a damaged reactor—is interested in what follows the cliché. If work can crush a soul, who’s to blame for the monstrous thing that takes that poor soul’s place?

In Kirkwood’s play, directed for the Atlantic Theatre Company by Sarah Benson, a court has already condemned a young married woman, Sally Poppy (Haley Wong), to hang, for helping her lover murder a little girl. We’re pretty sure she did it: the play starts with a candlelit prologue, in which Sally visits her abandoned husband raving and covered in the child’s blood. But Sally has sworn to the judge that she’s pregnant, and, under English common law in 1759, “pleading the belly” could commute the sentence. The judge presses twelve women—a “jury of matrons”—into service to evaluate Sally, sequestering them “without meat, drink, fire and candle,” to hasten their examination along.

For much of its first half, “The Welkin” is Kirkwood’s gender-swapped version of “Twelve Angry Men.” Here, Sandra Oh takes on what the playwright has referred to as the Henry Fonda position in the jury room, playing Lizzie, a midwife who empathizes with the unstable, fierce, forsaken Sally. Lizzie brings obstetric expertise and a brutal class consciousness to the deliberations. She spares no pity for the victim, the rich eleven-year-old Alice Wax, who was beaten to death with a hammer. “They found the little girl in pieces in two sacks stuffed up the fireplace,” the bailiff, Mr. Coombes (Glenn Fitzgerald), tells Lizzie. “Expect that is the closest a Wax child ever got to sweeping a chimney,” she tuts, banging away at her butter churn. Kirkwood uses the second half to take wilder stylistic swings. Music and apparitions move through the space; the women channel absurd interventions from other centuries. I found these moments bewildering at first, and then, as the superb cast invests them with manic energy, exhilarating.

In 1759, Halley’s Comet was a recent fascination, and Kirkwood threads its presence through the play, hinting at the way that future years (maybe 1835, certainly 1986) will drift into the play’s weird gravity. Other things—angels, demons, even the idea of airplanes—also hover above the action. In fact, “welkin” is an old English word for sky, or, really, the firmament, the high vault over us. Georgian and East Anglian idiom is usually introduced carefully and with enough repetition that I can now confidently insult any sloppy mawther as a slamkin who keeps a dirty house. “Welkin,” though, is said only once. I wonder if Kirkwood wants you to reach for a dictionary after you leave the theatre, and then, as you realize that you just spent two and a half hours at a play named for Heaven, she wants you to look up.

Two trends seem to be converging in “The Welkin”: the urge to revisit plays like “The Crucible” with our modern feminist sensibilities—in just a few years, we’ve had Kimberly Belflower’s “John Proctor Is the Villain,” Talene Monahon’s “The Good John Proctor,” and Sarah Ruhl’s “Becky Nurse of Salem”—and a long-building fear of authority and its instruments, including the justice system, the medical establishment, and even civic society itself. In Arthur Miller’s classic, girls—historically, little girls, Ruhl’s “Becky” taught us—are treated like sociopathic maniacs. Kirkwood’s tragic plot shows us a girl who is certainly violent, but we also gather that Sally’s fall into madness came after a short lifetime of abuse, unstinting work, and marital assault. As for that long-building fear, the women on the jury hear from a doctor (Danny Wolohan) who treats Lizzie with grave respect—while also reminding her, “The life of a woman is a history of disease.” This phrase is cribbed, I believe, from the nineteenth-century physician George Darwin, who recommended that women cleanse their vaginas with borax. (Kirkwood has a gift for chilling details, but even her horrors can’t rival the actual history.)

Kirkwood is also following in the great Caryl Churchill’s footsteps; there are elements here that recall the time-travelling “Top Girls,” the vignettes of rural English labor in “Fen,” and the acidic defense of cunning women in “Vinegar Tom.” When Kirkwood’s at her best—the often hilarious group exchanges, the adventurous aesthetics—she does Churchill proud. Kirkwood can write with a gunslinger’s ease: she introduces the jury in a clever impanelling scene, in which each woman responds to a disembodied judge’s voice with a saucy little summation of herself. (“Mary Middleton. Wife to Amos Middleton. I do not know what else to tell you except we have five children and there is a tankard in our house that is haunted.”) As the twelve women—plus Sally—argue and reveal themselves in the court’s upper room, Kirkwood orchestrates the many voices into a believably undulating, sometimes chaotic conversation. Kirkwood’s text, though, walks a tricky line between period-appropriate earthy banter and less graceful, more laborious speechifying. Lizzie at her most righteous observes, “It is a poor apparatus for justice. But it is what we have. This room. The sky outside that window and our own dignity beneath it.” For a long while, I found Lizzie’s didactic speeches wearing, though I did come to believe that Kirkwood wants the seams to show.

Benson’s directorial touch is extravagantly precise: we never see her move her ensemble into a tableau, but suddenly we’ll be looking at a stage image as delicately composed as a Hogarth print. Unfortunately, Benson, like Kirkwood, exhibits less deftness with the central pair, whose performances are big but sometimes flat. Oh, who has a gift for majesty, thunders like a lawyer during summation, and when she’s thwarted she gets even louder. And Wong, as the complex Sally, leans into playing her as if she’s a sulky teen. Kirkwood has given Wong an almost impossible task, and Sally’s costume doesn’t help. The designer Kaye Voyce puts the rest of the cast in clothes that suit 1759 from a distance but turn out to be inventive, anachronistic patchworks of hoodies, knitwear, and gathered skirts, yet she strips Sally down: by the end, she’s in just a corset over a slinky, soiled shift. (Did Forever 21 open an outlet in the eighteenth century?) Wong therefore spends a long time in her underwear, and that makes her character’s late-arriving fear of physical exposure difficult to sell.

Lizzie and Sally may be the core duo, but Kirkwood offers her secondary characters the best material. Susannah Perkins is wonderful as Mary, one of several comic-relief characters, notable for her dim-witted sweetness (she “does not know which glove belongs on which hand,” Lizzie says); Ann Harada shines as a lusty, menopausal mischief-maker, who takes great joy in humiliating the humorless bailiff. Sarah (Hannah Cabell) is a mute jury member who forces herself to speak after years of silence; her hoarse confession that she has seen a cloven-hoofed woman, spitting on blackberries to make them sour, is the dense, dark heart of “The Welkin.” Sarah has, until her outburst, seemed affable and sane, and when she tells the others not only that she met a devil-woman but that the demon delivered Sarah’s baby, the women all accept her testimony as though it makes perfect sense. It’s like the moment in a village-gone-bad thriller, say, “Midsommar” or “The Wicker Man,” when you realize that everybody’s in on it. A sweet face is no guarantee that the mind behind it isn’t wriggling like a bag of snakes. ♦

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