Power. Chaos. Family Loss. Race. War. Colonialism. Gender. These are themes playwright Jen Silverman has packed into her dense and powerful work, Phoebe in Winter. There is something both muscular and very poetic about the terse language and situations that constantly shift the “truth.” You have to be willing to wade in deeply with her and ask the dangerous questions, but the story, like the production, is so compelling that it is well-worth the difficult journey.
Watching the show reminded me of the plays of Harold Pinter in situation and tone of menace. There’s a World War I family that has its quiet and on-the-surface genteel rituals of tea and listening to the radio. Enter a mysterious stranger, in this case a young black woman dressed from another time and place – and carrying an assault rifle. What is her history and purpose moving in with this family?
The play becomes peopled quickly with other members of Da Creedy’s family of boys returning as men from a war. But which war? And what are the secrets they carry? One of them, Liam, returns and moves through the proceedings, but we learn he is actually dead. There is a curious maid, Boggett, who does all the things needed to keep the family in victuals and sees them through vicissitudes of fortune. But we learn that “Boggett” is a slippery role that gets passed from one character to another.
We are forced to consider how and why there seems to be a need for an “under” person and what our expectations are of power and the shifting balance of such. Does oppression in fact bring about not just resentment in the inequality but inevitably violence and revolution? Does war create a vacuum through loss and, when one returns from war, can nothing ever return to normal?
This is packed and difficult stuff, and maybe, at times, it feels too packed, as if the playwright wanted to put everything into this one piece. But I liked the boldness and the big themes.
Director Genevieve de Mahy has shown not only a commitment to this young woman’s work but fearlessness. She has almost surgically opened the vein of Silverman’s imaginative world and lets the story “bleed” in front of you in ever more powerful ways. She chooses to bring all the work’s themes to the fore. The playwright had suggested a racially diverse cast but not specified for which role. By making the stranger black, the choice both confronts and demolishes stereotypes and expectations of race and race-relations. It’s the director also, pointedly, who has brought in colliding wars from different periods on stage. De Mahy’s direction is sure throughout, and she keeps the action moving briskly, with even stage changes carried out so that they are lively and compelling and amplify the story’s themes.
The cast is terrific, and I particularly liked the strong physicality of the performances, which helped create such memorable characters. Lauren Erica Jackson is wonderful as Phoebe. Instantly striking with her hair shorn short like a cap and her wiry, androgynous body, she strides in and engulfs the place. She can play menacing and steely violent one instant and then the next moment seem ineffably vulnerable.
Interview with playwright Jen Silverman
Richard Goldberg as Da Creedy seems like a naturalistic, familiar elderly man, fussing over his tea things at the start, then later in his turn as “Boggett” he seems to seethe and go viral. Lauren A. Saunders has created a most powerful character and gender-bending transformation in her physical language, from the rigid, stiff-legged Boggett, twitchy-twitching and scurrying around the stage more like a mouse than a human, to then embodying son Liam and the man she has pined for, swaggering, broodish, and demanding.
PHOEBE IN WINTER
September 23 – October 18
Single Carrot Theatre
2600 N. Howard Street, Suite 1200
Baltimore, MD 21218
90 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
The three sons are also strongly physically etched and all believable as victims of war in very different ways. Anther seems the most modest and affable on the surface, as played by Paul Diem, but he is broken and, in trying to do good and keep some semblance of normalcy, he is the one pushed to carry out violence. Matthew Shea plays Jeremiah, and his secret, which I will not reveal, fills him with a coiled energy, ready to strike like a cobra. Dustin C.T. Morris plays the “dead son” Liam with a dark and maniacally intense presence that reminded me of Pacino in his early roles. His scenes with the “other” Liam (Saunders) is particularly powerful as both wrestle with loss and need.
An ambitious four-level set displaying the innards of a “real” house, with living room, dining room, a working bath, and bedroom, has been masterfully accommodated on the small stage by designer Jason Randolph. Tabetha White has lit the stage to support the double reality of a naturalistic setting and the heightened poetic style of writing. Steven Krigel has provided a strong sound design that helped evoke the shifting time periods and aural realities. Costume Designer Sarah Kendrick demonstrated creative problem solving to achieve a sense of different wars and to enable the quick costume and gender changes.
This is a very powerful addition to the Women’s Voices in Theatre Festival and should not be missed. Playwright Jen Silverman is a unique voice to be celebrated indeed.
Phoebe in Winter by Jen Silverman . Directed by Genevieve de Mahy . Produced by Single Carrot Theatre . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith