83-87: THE HILL TOWN PLAYS:
The Rattlestick Playwright’s Theatre production of the five plays in Lucy Thurber’s HILLTOWN PLAYS cycle represents a bold risk for a small Off Broadway company; regardless of my or other commentators' critical response, it is a venture that deserves loud applause for its artistic audacity. The plays are being produced at four important Greenwich Village venues, the Cherry Lane Theatre (SCARCITY and ASHVILLE), the Rattlestick itself (WHERE WE’RE BORN), the Axis at One Sheridan Square (KILLERS AND OTHER PEOPLE), and the New Ohio Theatre (STAY). Aside from the sheer logistical problems of putting on five shows simultaneously at four different theatres, the courageous artistic director, David Van Asselt, must have worried about how the plays, which were not specifically written in tandem but which are all closely related, would work together, provided audiences went to see all five of them. That last point is very important, of course, since someone could, for example, see one, be disappointed, and then skip the rest. This is only one of the multiple marketing problems the company must have faced.
Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, on Waverley Place, where WHERE WE'RE BORN is playing.
New Ohio Theatre, Christopher Street, where STAY is playing.
Four of the five plays have been seen in New York before (three in Rattlestick productions), so the only non-revival is ASHVILLE. The original productions were offered as individual plays, not as part of a cycle. Because of the cycle programming, some spectators will choose to see them in the chronological order with which they chart the story of the central female character. She is the same person in the SCARCITY and STAY, except at different ages, but Ms. Thurber gives her different names, different circumstances, and different surrounding characters in the other three plays; with a small number of exceptions, these differences are not particularly great. Since they were apparently conceived as stand-alone plays, they can be seen and appreciated individually, without seeing the whole cycle; they can be seen out of order; or they can be visited in the chronological sequence of the heroine’s life, which is how I viewed them and why I would recommend that procedure for those not put off by my comments below. The chronological sequence would be SCARCITY (set in 1992), directed by Daniel Talbott; ASHVILLE (set in 1997), directed by Karen Allen; WHERE WE’RE BORN (set in 2003), directed by Jackson Gay; KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY (set in 2009), directed by Caitriona McLaughlin; and STAY (set in 2013, although taking place in 2007 when first produced), directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch.
Deirdre O'Connell and Gordon Joseph Weiss in SCARCITY. Photo: Sandra Couldart.
Gordon Joseph Weiss, Natalie Gold, Will Pullen, and Deirdre O'Connell in SCARCITY. Photo: Sandra Couldart.
Izzy Hanson-Johnston and Will Pullen in SCARCITY. Photo: Sandra Couldart.
All five plays are covered in this overview, so I’ll avoid discussing each in detail and confine myself to more general remarks. The central female figure in SCARCITY and STAY, the bookend plays, is Rachel, first seen as a rather mature 11-year-old (Izzy Hanson-Johnston) and then as a 32-year-old college professor and promising writer (Hani Furstenberg) at a small, elite New England school. In ASHVILLE she’s Celia (Mia Vallett), a 16-year-old high school student; in WHERE WE’RE BORN she’s Lilly (Betty Gilpin), a 19-year-old college student; in KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY she’s Elizabeth/Lizzie (Samantha Soule), a 28-year-old doctoral candidate, now living in New York. All these characters hail from a rural area among the “hill towns” of western Massachusetts, referred to sarcastically by someone in STAY as Massatucky, a dig at the expense of the region's widespread poverty and the predilection of its white-trash residents for indiscriminate swilling, smoking, screwing, and swearing. At least that’s how many of the characters in the first four plays are depicted.
James McMenamin and Mia Vallet in ASHVILLE. Photo: Sandra Couldart.
Aubrey Dollar and Mia Vallett in ASHVILLE. Photo: Sandra Couldart.
Mia Vallet, Joe Tippett, and Tasha Lawrence in ASHVILLE. Photo: Sandra Couldart.
In SCARCITY and STAY, Rachel’s closest bond is with her brother, Billy, a 16-year-old high school "brainiac" in the first play (Will Pullen) and a 37-year-old lawyer (McCaleb Burnett) in the second. For the teenaged Celia in ASHVILLE, her principal male friend is her lover, Jake (Joe Tippett), a blue-collar worker who appears to be in his 20s and wants to marry her, while for Lilly in WHERE WE’RE BORN it’s her brother-like cousin Tony (Christopher Abbott); and for Lizzie in KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY it’s an actual brother again, this one a screw-up fugitive from justice called Jeff (Chris Stack) who hopes to flee to Mexico with his buddy, Danny (Shane McCrae), who has brutally beaten a girl to death. Except for Tommy (Brian Miskell), a wealthy college boy in STAY, all the men would easily match many of the items listed on Jeff Foxworthy’s list of 300 things that define a redneck. They curse incessantly, chain smoke (both cigarettes and weed), pour Jack Daniels down their gullets as if it were Poland Spring, spend their spare time (or all of it) bullshitting and fighting, and wearing their racism and infidelities like badges of honor. Billy, whose academics are good enough to get him into Deerfield and Harvard Law, manages to extricate himself from this backwoods bog, but even he loses control over his instincts and slides back into the primordial ooze; the wonder is that he managed to become a successful lawyer in a high-powered firm before he erupted over a triviality and struck his boss’s daughter.
From left: Christopher Abbott, MacKenzie Meehan, Betty Gilpin, and Daniel Abeles in WHERE WE'RE BORN. Photo: Sandra Couldart.
Betty Gilpin and MacKenzie Meehan in WHERE WE'RE BORN. Photo: Sandra Couldart.
The only other family member who appears in multiple plays is the heroine's loose-mouthed, loose-living, but, in her own perverse way, loving mother, called Martha in SCARCITY and Shelly (Tasha Lawrence) in ASHVILLE. She doesn't show up in person again, although she's referred to, but in STAY she is constantly calling and leaving messages on the answering machine. Her prerecorded voice belongs to Deirdre O'Connell, who plays her in SCARCITY.
From left; Samantha Soule, Shane McRae, Aya Cash, and Chris Stack in KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY. Photo: Sandra Couldart.
There's a strong core of talented New York actors involved in this super-ambitious project, from young and upcoming men and women to more experienced veterans, such as Ms. O’Connell and Mr. Weiss. While everyone—including, of course, the directors—works hard to make the material live and breathe, the results are often uneven, with emotional transitions bordering on the kind of intense but not wholly convincing mixture of reality and theatricality seen in classroom improvs. The acting occasionally veers into excess, most notably in the case of Pamela Shaw, who plays Gloria, the garishly outlandish wife of Louis (Michael Warner), the cop, in SCARCITY. The older heroines are acted by physically lithe, vocally strong, and emotionally sensitive actresses; sometimes they are excessively sensitive, I might add, given the need to express such a stockpile of insecurities. These insecurities involve the women's growing sexual awareness, which takes most obvious form in their interest in other women: these lesbian lovers are represented by Amanda (Aubrey Dollar), married to Joey (George West Carruth), in ASHVILLE; Franky (MacKenzie Meehan), Tony's lover in WHERE WE'RE BORN; Claire (Aya Cash), Lizzie's girlfriend/roommate in KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY; and Julia (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann), Rachel's "creepy" student in STAY.
Hani Furstenberg and Brian Miskell in STAY. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jenny Seastone Stern, Hani Furstenberg, and Mikaela Feely-Lehmann in STAY. Photo: Joan Marcus.
McCaleb Burnett and Hani Furstenberg in STAY. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The almost exclusively unpleasant male characters are well played. Still, too many of the younger men look like they've been spending all their off time when not boozing, cruising, or schmoozing at the gym. As might be imagined, shirtless scenes abound, but several women also get to display their toned physiques. There is also a striking (no pun intended) amount of violence on display, male on male, male on female, and female on male. The fights can be pretty brutal and the actors in some instances should be getting hazard pay. Uncledave's Fight House staged the violence in each of the first four plays, while J. David Brimmer handled the far less arduous fisticuffs in STAY, where the most dramatic slugging occurs offstage.
Among other physically demanding requirements are the sex scenes, both male-female and female-female; although Rachel in SCARCITY is too young for such hanky-panky, her older manifestations engage in some heavy-duty lovemaking, often in passive-aggressive scenes where she resists and then succumbs to her passion for another female. But her sexual ambivalence is also expressed through several aggressive engagements with men; one vigorously staged scene between Lizzie and Danny, the murderer, borders on rape before she chooses to complete the act. Play after play refers to the physical attractiveness of the women, both in a complimentary way and, when the speaker comments on herself, as an attempt at self-assurance.
Another thread is the alleged smartness of the heroine, referred to frequently as if to underline the tragedy of her being a prisoner of her domestic circumstances while having the potential to smash the chains binding her to her roughneck world. The words “smart” and “stupid” (and their equivalents) bounce through the lines like a rubber ball. Playwright Thurber, however, must do more to convince me that the heroine is smart than to have her or others tell me she is, or to cite the books she’s reading or has read; for all the talk about the intelligence of Rachel-Celia-Lilly-Elizabeth, only Rachel as a child seems wise, and that's partly because the things she says are not what you'd expect to hear from someone so young. The older versions of the character constantly make questionable choices that belie her supposed brilliance. I've read in interviews where Ms. Thurber defends her heroine's continuing to loyally support the folks she grew up with, regardless of their behavior. Perhaps this might be true for her immediate family, but I find it hard to accept that she'd still be so strongly attached to the ragtag bunch of losers represented in the plays by these mostly ambitionless drunks, psychopaths, and even killers.
I don’t know Lucy Thurber’s personal biography, but there’s a strong impression that the plays are autobiographical accounts of her own struggles to overcome and flee from an environment of alcoholic, crude, and physically violent parents. When mom and pop aren’t behaving like cretins, there are enough other specimens around to serve as sterling replacements. Perhaps I’m going out on a limb here, but the plays suggest that Ms. Thurber has written them to exorcize her personal demons, to somehow escape through dramatic art the horrendous world of her childhood and upbringing. As one watches the plays over the course of a week and sees the same patterns of inappropriate behavior enacted in different forms, with a band of characters who gradually morph from individuals into stereotypes, it becomes difficult to avoid the writing’s therapeutic purpose. As Lizzie in KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY admits, “There’s something wrong with me.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, as much great theatre stems from personal anguish and suffering. But to be great art it needs to transmute that pain onto a higher, more universal level. Instead, this cycle asks that you spend 8 to 10 hours over the course of a week immersed in the most disturbing moments of the victim’s life; when that life seems little more than a ground hog’s day repetition of similar traumas happening to a not especially interesting person, at different stages of her life, you want to escape from the theatre just as much as she does from the world she’s bound to.
The plays are thinly plotted, most of them lacking sharp central conflicts, and seem more like extended situations that give rise to emotional reactions than conventional dramas with strong narrative arcs. The most decisively dramatic is SCARCITY, whose principal thrust concerns a young female schoolteacher, Ellen (Natalie Gold), who takes a deep interest in promoting Billy’s move from his local high school to Deerfield Academy; her interest seems predicated as much on Billy’s academic promise as on her repressed sexual feelings toward him. (The play contains other pedophiliac hints stemming from the behavior of Rachel’s loutish, unemployed dad, Herb [Gordon Joseph Weiss].) The desperate attempts of Louis the cop to seduce Billy and Rachel’s slatternly mother, Martha (Didi [Deirdre] O’Connell), even provide a subplot. While the play is melodramatically overwrought, it held my interest far longer than the remaining works, a couple of which (ASHVILLE and STAY) proved decidedly soporific. Each has at least one or two potent scenes, but the kind of plotting that creates continual interest in what happens next is sacrificed for more momentary, and not always believable, theatrical effects. Arguments, for example, frequently leap out of nowhere, sparked more by the need to enliven the action than because of organic need. By and large, dialogue--often crisp and colorful, but just as often dull and prosaic--character relationships, and emotional states of mind take precedence over gripping storytelling.
Naturalism is the prevailing mode, but in STAY, Ms. Thurber opts for the surrealistic presence of an alter ego for Rachel called Floating Girl (Jenny Seastone Stern), a sort of psychological Tinker Bell, hanging out on top of bookcases and the like, offering verbal and physical reactions to Rachel’s conflicts (in a manner slightly reminiscent of the invisible friends in FIRST DATE). Floating Girl’s presence also permits the playwright to inject ambiguously “poetic” dialogue into the script. Both Floating Girl and the poetry, which try to raise the stylistic bar in Ms. Thurber’s writing, are dead ends and would be better off floating elsewhere.
The physical elements of the productions are all acceptably realized, but with nothing markedly original about any of them. Raul Abrego designed the set for SCARCITY, and Rachel Hauck designed STAY, but John McDermott created the other sets. SCARCITY takes place in a hardscrabble house interior; ASHVILLE mixes three contiguous row house apartments, no walls separating them, with a center area shared by the two of the apartments; WHERE WE’RE BORN offers another seedy interior, but it has a small exterior area outside the front door, and its wall-less bedroom is set off by several trees presumed to be outside; KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY bumps up the decorative aspect with its realistic, if familiar, depiction of a white New York apartment whose French doors are adorned with multicolored panes; and STAY, which includes polished wooden flooring on two levels, replaces walls and with bookcases, doors, and a decorative window to establish a faculty office at one side that cleverly opens up to create an apartment when a bookcase unit is rolled off to one side.
Ms. Thurber has said that she sought to trace the evolution of her female lead over time. But, for me, the impression grew I was watching a single play in multiple iterations. As Billy says to Rachel in STAY, where her writer character’s work is based on her own experiences, “Your life’s a sheet of paper that’s been copied too many times.” In aggregate, the cycle expresses the confusion and agony of a young woman described as talented and bright seeking to abandon her harmful, closed-minded, poverty-stricken environment and find a better place in the world where she can free both the social person and the literary artist locked inside; unhappily, much as she tries to escape, that past will always come knocking at her door, or more likely, walk in without knocking.
Ms. Thurber has said that the plays are "about the culture of poverty in America." Naturally, class differences pursue her heroine as well, and there are frequent clashes between the working-class world she comes from and the bourgeois life she seeks while constantly being reminded of her roots. Ms. Thurber herself encapsulates the essential dilemma of the plays in STAY, when Rachel declares: “Poor boys, poor girls, drinking it up in the country with abusive parents. Violence equals love—love equals violence—lack of connection—lack of hope—no escape—no escape—no escape—no escape.” Although the conclusion to STAY suggests some sort of redemption and a brighter future, it is via a theatrical convention of magic realism and not as the result of the natural course of events.
After a week in the company of these cringe-worthy people, I found myself sharing Rachel-Celia-Lilly-Lizzie's longing to flee, even though the playwright has done her best to dramatize not only the characters' flaws but whatever decent qualities they might have, however miniscule. Having watched five plays in which normalcy is to be angry and hostile, to start arguments and fights on the slightest pretexts, to suck tobacco and drown in beer and whisky, and to do the nasty whenever opportunity knocks, I too wanted to run away and never look back. When the cycle ended I was able to find release by stepping into the street and jotting down these comments. Rachel-Celia-Lilly-Lizzie, however, will be forever encased in the emotional amber of Lucy Thurber’s HILL TOWN PLAYS.
Postscript: I'm aware, of course, that other theatregoers will feel completely the opposite. On leaving one of the shows I ran into a respected acquaintance who writes theatre criticism for a local outlet. He and his companion, who had just finished the cycle, asked me and mine, who still had two plays to go, what we thought. We expressed our middling responses and were greeted with wide-eyed stares of astonishment. His friend kept saying, as she processed our reaction, "How interesting!" as if only people from Mars could have felt as we did. In fact, she walked with me to the subway, detained me on the sidewalk, and held me there as we argued the merits of what we'd seen. I appreciated her passion for the plays, but, as I descended the subway steps, I continued to feel that, thus far, at any rate, THE HILL TOWN PLAYS were an uphill climb. And the climb, I'm afraid, continued to the end.