By Bathsheba Doran
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Nest, playing at Signature’s intimate ARC space, is a taut little psychological thriller that will burrow its way into your brain and heart. The torn from the 1800’s headlines story is gripping enough – servant woman kills her newborn infant and is hanged in retribution. In the skillful hands of director Joe Calarco, the play becomes downright mesmerizing.
The Brit-born playwright, Bathsheba Doran, sets up the full throttle aspects of sexuality in the opening moments before a word is spoken with the servant girl, Suzanna Cox, rhythmically pulsating her “nether region” on a table leg. There is no pretense of Victorian nicety or propriety in the act, just a “get it done for relief” kind of urgency before she is discovered by the man of the house, Joe. Their secret sets up the play’s sexual tension, which is just one of the many themes that Doran explores in this brief and fascinating piece.
Nest uses fantasy to provide psychological insight about Suzanna’s questionable state of mind. Her sexual fantasies about Daniel Boone, played with hulking ferociousness by Richard Pelzman, must be seen to be believed. The play also touches on aspects of class and race when Suzanna tries to clarify her servant status by asking “Am I a slave?” and from Joe’s response – her German father sold her to them – she personifies the term “indentured servant.” Once they become involved, he contemplates ways to improve her social status by acknowledging the importance of civility and literacy—both currently totally out of her reach. Layered on top of that are unrelenting gender differences as depicted in the strained relationship between husband and wife, skillfully rendered in nicely nuanced portrayals by Michael Grew and Vanessa Lock. Nest even includes a nicely paced storyline about the struggling poet who composed the ballad about the infamous act. and its severe consequence, under the watchful eye of the always polished James Slaughter as publisher/mentor.
Calarco’s terrific staging will keep you on the edge of your seats as he delves into the psychological crevices of the characters while moving them around the stage with chess-like precision. A master of physical expression (directed Urinetown, Side Show, and Nijinsky’s Last Dance) Calarco uses a stylized approach with characters moving in their own space, pacing the square wood planked stage without regard to others passing alongside. The tension mounts as the story clips along its horrific and raw trajectory with the characters all fully engaged in their own private struggles. The descriptions and storylines are so surreal and with so much happening sometimes simultaneously on stage that one can be lulled into a concentrated trance-like state only to be jolted to attention by the startlingly effective lighting and sound cues by Chris Lee and Matthew Nielson respectively.
I’ve saved the best for last in describing Anne Veal’s breathtaking performance as Suzanna Cox. Even in perfect stillness on bended knees and concaved shoulders of servitude, she portrays more in her translucent gaze about the acceptance of life and fate than most could even dare. She is bewitchingly beautiful in a hunted and haunted sort of way and speaks in furtive sporadic bursts as roughly hewn as the new open territory soon to be conquered and timbered. She doesn’t excuse herself or shy away from admitting having committed the heinous act of infanticide any more than she denied her moments of sexual self-relief that felt like “turning her body into water.” Her fervent prayers for mercy and salvation as directed by the also effective Stephen Patrick Martin as the Chaplain are heartfelt and pitiful, especially after knowing the full extent of her plight.
Nest depicts an unforgiving historical period of history told from the perspective of an artist who, like a town crier, declared it a “national emergency” that the country had no heroic epic writer to record its passages, who could serve as its voice. This spellbinding production sheds light on the sentiments and expressions of the day, with a spotlight on a particularly gruesome act and dares us to see beyond the shadows of snap judgments. Prepare to be amazed.
(Running time: 90 minutes) Nest is playing at the ARC of Signature Theater through June 24th, 2800 S. Stafford Street in Arlington. Tickets: $44 – $55. To urchase, contact the Box Office at 703-820-9771 or visit the website.