review: heathens

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Heathens

by Heather Hill
Directed by Stefanie Sertich
Featuring Lisa Gillan, Lauren Fox, Malcolm Madera, Andy Powers
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue
March 1, 2012 — March 17, 2012 [opening March 4, 2012]
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 3, 2012

Character names such as Jebdiah and Junebug and Lulu-Lilly and Sis (which we soon learn refers to a male character, short for Sisyphus from Greek legend) prepare us on paper for a backwoods, earnest, earthy perhaps twee spate of story telling. Set design by Edward Ross provides a solid and evocative world of poor country people — rough-hewn boards, bare tree trunks, worn wall paper. A delicious sound design and spare vocal stylings (jointly credited to Erin Hill and Mike Nolan) set us in a folk-influenced, harmonic world. What transpires once things get underway is a combination of sibling familial responsibility debates that provide some comedy, and some dark revelations that as a whole does not quite solidly land.

Lulu-Lilly (Lisa Gillan) has spent her young adulthood caring for the grandmother who raised her and her younger wandering sister Junebug (Lauren Fox).  At curtain up, grandmother is laying over her cards at the center stage table, recently and suddenly expired. (A question to the playwright: why is grandmother’s presence on stage required at all?  A measure of the impact of her “just expired” status could be provided by referring to her off stage.) Lulu has brought home Sis (Malcolm Madera) from a nearby bar for some, um, companionship and oddly (never really explained), knowing granny’s state, proclaims her desire to stay in the room with the body at the card table. Not long into this slightly inebriated back and forth, sister Junebug (Lauren Fox) enters after a several-month absence. This then becomes a story of sisters debating who did more for dependent granny, and comparing stories (and differing degrees of understanding) of the mother who abandoned them to granny’s care. Soon housemate Sis dallies with both sisters — a plot line that seems farcical rather than dangerous. There are stories of placing Junebug in her early teen years in the care of the local pastor for a year, perhaps locked in a basement room. Was this “abuse” or “treatment”? The pastor’s son Jebdiah (Andy Powers) has now taken over the church after his father’s death, and presents himself at the household of known heathens to deliver the Word, to connect with the Junebug he loved as a teenager, to marry the unmarried couple. Many plot lines, often funny dialogue, much too simplistic conversations about atheism, heathen-ism, churchy folk, and somehow no way in to feel with and for these characters.

Think of a cross between movies The Trouble With Harry (1955) (a body and a mystery and rural America) and Songcatcher (2000) (wise tuneful country folk in Appalachia studied by a visiting musicologist in the early 1900s) and Georgia (1995) (two sisters, one with a solid home life and musical success and one whose life is in chaos and who wants her sister’s stability). In Heathens there are bits and pieces of these stories of a traveling sibling returning to reveal shards of a shared past. And yet, somehow, this story doesn’t resonate with the power it might. It may be relevant that cinematic examples occur to me rather than theatrical models — direction by Stefanie Sertich is strikingly inert. Themes are resonant (human needs and ways to attempt to meet them) but theatrical choices (who is on stage when, and how speeches are delivered) frequently stop the storytelling in its tracks.

We have a story told by insiders to the community, and revelations of past hurts and possible abuses, and absolute rejections of the maternal role. It is true that Junebug’s screech upon the naming of the mother who abandoned the girls and her dispassionate description of her own rejection of the maternal role in the outside world are powerful and evocative, but somehow don’t resonate fully in this production. We’re left to observe from the outside, unmoved. It is Junebug’s journey, and the layers don’t add up.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 5, 2012)

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