Lindsay B. Davis goes to Theater: Village and sees two of five Lucy Thurber works that comprise The Hill Town Plays.
My father once told me how uncomfortable he feels in the audience of a movie or play when out of sync with the majority of the crowd’s response. In other words, they are laughing out loud when all he can think is “What on earth do these people finding so funny?!” Or, the tears are pouring down everyone’s faces and instead he thinks “Really, this? THIS is making you cry?” It is an odd sensation, one that lives in direct contrast to the incredible feeling of oneness that happens when in alignment with a theatergoing majority.
I thought of my dad a lot while seeing Scarcity and Ashville, two of five plays by Lucy Thurber that comprise The Hill Town Plays, which The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is presenting simultaneously at five different theaters in the West Village under the festival heading Theater: Village. This is a new initiative and one that will hopefully be repeated, since it is rare yet inspiring to see five works by one playwright who is not yet iconic or dead produced at once. I thought of my father not only because my reaction was so different than nearly every audience member around me but also because father-daughter relationships and father figure boyfriends are featured prominently in Thurber’s plays.
Whether or not one identifies closely with the given circumstances — girl born and raised in a poor, western Massachusetts mill town surrounded by active, attention-seeking alcoholics fights to escape the oppressive, abusive shackles of her family while aching to connect with people who see her clearly and most of all, herself – the themes are universal. Do families break or make us? How do we discover who we really are outside of our family? Why do some people transcend family of origin challenges while others stay deeply entrenched in what they were taught, from alcohol and drugs to sex and toxic relationships?
The number of audience members laughing during Scarcity shocked me, as I found very few moments on the Cherry Lane Studio stage funny. The tone of the piece is confusing, at times playing like a farce of white-trash reality TV (with an abundance of cupboards slamming and at home theatrics) and at other times, a naturalistic, coming of age story seen through the eyes of a knowing, little girl with a passion for Tarot. The strongest aspect of the piece is Deidre O’Connell, who acts with a grounding sense of believability but seems to be in a different world than her husband, played by an exceedingly over-the-top Gordon Joseph Weiss. Another highlight is the brother and sister duo of Rachel (Izzie Hanson-Johnston) and Billy (Will Pullen), a high school student whose relationship with his teacher (Natalie Gold) both inspires and pulls him across appropriate lines, creating something of a love triangle between the three. Even as they struggle to find independence, these two siblings are in each other’s corner. The young Hanson-Johnston and Pullen work with equal yet contrasting intensity. Hers is quiet and largely internalized while his is more aggressive and externalized, a balance which helps keep the play engaging, even if the surrounding rackets sometimes pull attention from the story’s believability and heart.
The plays move sequentially and Ashville, in which a 16-year-old girl comes to terms with her sexual identity and need to transcend a troubled home life, is the second. Under Karen Allen’s poignant direction, characters are frequently brought downstage, whether it is to chat each other up on a roof, pass joints around in living room while gazing out a window, or just go outside for air. The result is an intimate, sensitively told story with moments to fully absorb. The set and lighting design (John McDermott and Matt Richards, respectively) are brilliant. Three apartments are set up adjacent to each other with characters moving in and out of each rooms but never seeing each other unless in the same scene. The sound design (Bart Fasbender) is delightfully specific. The hum of overhead planes and little crickets at just the right volume adds texture to the piece.
Mia Vallet as 16-year-old Celia had me at her shaking hands. For a brief moment I thought I was watching a nervous actor but no. We fast learn Celia has acute levels of anxiety and suffers from panic, which Vallet communicates through hollow expressions and bursts of emotion, her lanky frame like a wire that alternates between live and no charge. Celia’s attempts to use mindfulness techniques to ground herself , “My feet-my feet on the ground-my ankles are on top of my feet, my calves-my knees-my thighs-my stomach-my shoulders-arm-my head, my head, my head…” are telling. She skips over of her pelvis and breasts, a teenager who, while oversexed, cannot acknowledge her sexuality and must deal with a mind that rattles her to the core. The cast is solid all around – heard, seen, believable, funny, and dangerous. I believe Ashville could be the first play (certainly the first I’ve seen) to successfully pull off a comedic statutory rape scene. That is in part due to the work of James McMenamin, whose skeazy yet likable drug dealing neighbor is a guy you may want to but cannot hate.
The additional three plays in the cycle are Where We’re Born, Killers and Other Family, and Stay. Tickets may be purchased at www.theatervillage.com. The Hill Town Plays run through September 28, 2013.
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist and theater artist. She resides in NYC.