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Theatre in Review: The Welkin (Atlantic Theatre Company)

Dale Soules, Emily Cass McDonnell, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Tilly Botsford, Susannah Perkins, Haley Wong, Paige Gilbert, Simone Recasner, Nadine Malouf. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

For three-quarters of its running time, The Welkin is distinguished by such vigorous, imaginative, and intensely dramatic writing that it is especially distressing when it tips over into mannerism and rhetorical excess. Having discovered a fascinating detail of historical juridical practice, playwright Lucy Kirkwood uses it to carve out a savage tableau of eighteenth-century rural life, revealing the extreme threshold for pain and suffering especially required of women. In so doing, she excavates Western society's misogynistic roots, some of which remain embedded in fertile ground today. It's such a powerful argument, it's a pity that she loses control of it near the end.

To my knowledge, Kirkwood is the first dramatist to employ the Enlightenment-era practice of the jury of matrons, random citizens deputized to determine if criminal defendants were, as they claimed, pregnant. (Even if convicted, a woman expecting a baby couldn't be hanged or transported to the colonies, at least until she delivered.) According to an illuminating article in The Washington Post, "This body might ideally have comprised a dozen midwives, but in practice, it was usually made up of married women who happened to be nearby at the time of an offender's court appearance. Their findings were notoriously unreliable. Often, they were suspected of lying on the offender's behalf."

In this case, sympathy is in short supply. Kirkwood, who has no dearth of gut punches at her command, introduces Sally Poppy, who, along with her lover, Thomas, is accused of brutally killing and dismembering a child; that Sally has shown up on the doorstep of her estranged husband, Fred, carrying a hammer and covered in blood, would seem to close the case. But, she insists, she is carrying a child and so a determination must be made about her status.

The Welkin makes fascinating use of this device, assembling a rowdy, sharp-tongued regiment of women, most of them eager to speak their minds even if they aren't too happy about being pulled away from their daily chores. And, at least in this limited situation, their decision is law: The only man in the room, Mr. Coombes, the court's designated observer, may not communicate with them. As each juror introduces herself, we get a hair-raising group portrait of hardscrabble lives scarred by back-breaking work, disease, superstition, and abuse. Their days are unvarying and tedious. They have endured staggering numbers of infant deaths. Especially among those employed as servants, rape is far from uncommon.

Such circumstances have hardened them, giving them a cool, gimlet-eye attitude toward the most appalling tragedies. "My hopes for a walk were dashed by a turned ankle, so I thought to entertain myself at the trial," one of them says, apparently treating the trial as a game. Another, introducing herself, says. "I enjoy the pursuits of rug-work and macramé and have miscarried twelve times in eight years. One child, a boy, born dead. Sometimes [her husband] Tom makes me laugh so much I think my stays will snap." The juxtaposition of details is head-spinning. Speaking of the deceased's mother, yet another crisply notes, "That's a woman who never had nothing taken from her in her whole life, perhaps the experience will sweeten her, like frost on a parsnip." (Throughout, Kirkwood has devised a tough hybrid of contemporary and period speech that suits her characters perfectly.)

Indeed, most jurors, skeptical of Sally's pregnancy claims and convinced of her guilt, want to complete their deliberations as quickly as possible. However, in (perhaps) a nod to Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, Elizabeth, the local midwife, says of Sally, "She is a nasty, stupid, wicked wretch, and I mean to save her life," working furiously to turn the tide of opinion. It's not until late in the action that we discover Elizabeth's motivation, which lays bare the community's pervasive corruption and its mute acceptance of women as beasts of burden and instruments of one-sided pleasure.

Sarah Benson's direction deploys a large cast with felicity, maintaining a lively pace and keeping us focused on the freshest arguments. She has a smart eye for casting, beginning with Sandra Oh as Elizabeth; both essential to the town but a bit of an outsider thanks to her independent mind, she pursues Sally's defense with implacable force. Oh is hardly the only powerful stage presence, however. Haley Wong's Sally is a feral creature, enraged and remorseless yet oddly vulnerable when confessing the love that has brought her to this terrible place. Speaking in carefully modulated posh tones, Mary McCann is airy and ulterior as a visitor to the town, who isn't all she seems. As the most conviction-minded juror, Nadine Malouf provides a strong counterbalance to Elizabeth. Emily Cass McDonnell underplays skillfully as a young wife who, having lost twelve in childbirth, has little mercy for Sally's alleged crimes. Hannah Cabell has a scene-stealing turn as an apparent mute who, in a moment of near-hysteria, reveals the dark secret that shakes up the proceedings. Also providing fine support are Susannah Perkins as an erotically starved housewife, Dale Soules as the group's thoughtful éminence grise, and Glenn Fitzgerald as Mr. Coombes, whose clandestine, adulterous relationship with Elizabeth is just one of many compromising factors among the jurors. (At the performance I attended, Benson stood in for the ailing Ann Harada, carrying a book onstage and never missing a cue.)

So gripping is The Welkin for so long that one regrets how it peaks about halfway through the second act, forcing Kirkwood to repeat herself to diminishing effect. Following the disclosure of Elizabeth's secret, the playwright seems unsure where to go next, extending the action by piling twist upon twist and horror upon horror. These include the unmasking of an impostor, the appearance of a doctor wielding an alarming gynecological device, a couple of bizarre apparitions, and an assault with a bucket of urine. She also tries too hard to tie the action to contemporary reality in a sequence featuring the women delivering a rendition of the old Bangles hit "Manic Monday." The action climaxes in an unconscionably drawn-out sequence that feels especially redundant.

There's little Benson can do with so much dramatic overkill, and The Welkin having lost momentum, peters out. Even in its weakest moments, however, the production benefits from a fine design. The collective known as dots provides an austere wood-and-plaster interior with a tiny window through which Stacey Derosier forces simulated sunlight, carving our Rembrandt-style looks and flooding the stage with a searing sunset. Kaye Voyce's costumes feel solidly in period (except for the doctor, apparently a deliberate choice), employing a palette that blends seamlessly with the scenery and lighting. Cookie Jordan's hair and wigs give each woman a look that underscores her role in local society. Palmer Hefferan's sound design includes such rattling effects as angry crowds and the beating wings of a bird descending through a chimney.

This is my third experience with Lucy Kirkwood; the others include the marvelous Chimerica (an Olivier Award winner, still not seen in New York) and the tendentious nuclear-meltdown drama The Children. The Welkin falls somewhere between the two but, at its best, it serves up a lost era with a savage glint in its eye. And its cast is equally ferocious. --David Barbour

(20 June 2024)

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