Steel Yourself Before Attending Playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s Latest, ‘The Welkin,’ as It Is Both Mesmerizing and Harrowing

In addition to fine performances by Haley Wong, Sandra Oh, and others, the play includes one of the most graphically brutal sequences this reviewer has ever witnessed in a theater.

Ahron R. Foster
A scene from 'The Welkin.' Ahron R. Foster

Few things are more frustrating than watching a potentially marvelous play (or film, for that matter) either run too long or veer off course. “The Welkin,” the latest effort from acclaimed playwright Lucy Kirkwood to arrive in New York, is guilty on both counts — which is not, by any means, to say you should miss it.

Set in England in the late 1750s, as its characters await the appearance of Halley’s Comet, “Welkin,” titled after an archaic word for the sky or the heavens, focuses on a group of 12 women who have been charged with determining whether one of their neighbors is pregnant. The subject in question, one Sally Poppy, stands accused of the murder of a young girl, in a most gruesome fashion, and only proof of a budding child can spare her a date with the local hangman.

In this often mesmerizing, harrowing production, directed with biting wit and haunting empathy by Sarah Benson, we meet Sally before her arrest, as she briefly returns to the husband she had abandoned for adventures that won’t be revealed in their full ugliness until much later in the play. The scene is so dimly lit — by Stacey Derosier, a key member of the ace design team — that you may miss the bloodstains on her tattered dress at first.   

In later scenes, the women judging Sally will describe her as a devil and an animal; played with terrifying authenticity by Haley Wong, the character has a bitter, feral quality, lashing out even at those who try to embrace or defend her. Yet as more light is shed on her background, it’s shown that this animal is a deeply wounded one, and that her self-destructive behavior is, ironically, rooted in efforts to escape and survive.

Scene from ‘The Welkin.’ Ahron R. Foster

The central question in “Welkin,” in fact, is not whether Sally committed or was complicit in a heinous crime — there’s little doubt that at least the latter is true — but how she could be driven to such a sorry, scary state. And while her case may be extreme, it is made plain that other female characters have also suffered from oppression and objectification. Many are introduced in a sort of chorus line of drudgery, forming dull, mechanical rhythms as they go about the housework that defines their lives: scrubbing floors, carrying pails of water, beating a rug. 

The closest thing to a rebel in their midst is the local midwife, Lizzy Luke. Played by the noted film and television actress Sandra Oh, she first appears churning butter, exuding a sense of self-possession and a hint of mischief even as she applies herself dutifully to the task. Lizzy will emerge as a central figure both in the trial and, in a second-act twist, Sally’s back story, and in Ms. Oh’s witty performance she comes across as both defiant and compassionate.

Lizzy also seems distinctly contemporary at points, as do some of the others, and this is clearly by design. Few English accents are used in the production; a plucky Tilly Botsford adopts a burr to play a Scot, but most speak like modern Americans: The obvious point is that women in the audience should be able to relate to at least some extent to the assumptions, burdens, and unfulfilled desires in play here.

Ms. Kirkwood deals frankly, and evocatively, with the biological factors, and puzzles, that have empowered sexism through the ages. A seemingly kind male doctor who stops by to examine Sally (a strapping, gentle Danny Wolohan) refers to “evidence of a tyranny of the ovaries,” and remarks, “A life of a woman is a history of disease.” Another woman muses, “I do think it very queer that we know more about the movement of a comet that is thousands of miles away than the workings of a woman’s body.”

It’s after the doctor departs, a little more than halfway through Act Two, that “Welkin” starts to lose its footing. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, there is a musical number — an ’80s pop song, no less, arranged to suggest a folk ditty from centuries before that. Perhaps Ms. Kirkwood was trying to offer a comedic palate-cleanser, given what follows, which is one of the most graphically brutal sequences I’ve ever witnessed in a theater.

If this final portion can be difficult to watch, and could use editing, “Welkin” remains compelling throughout, with other superb performances provided by a cast that includes veterans such as Ann Harada, as an enduringly impish matron, and Dale Soules as the town elder, who has had 21 children and three husbands: “All very satisfactory,” she assures us. 

Other characters — among them a childless woman who has suffered 12 miscarriages as well as a stillbirth, movingly played by Emily Cass McDonnell — have far less cause for contentment, or hope. Its quirks notwithstanding, “The Welkin” offers an engaging and sobering reminder that even if biology is no longer destiny for women (in our culture, at least), progress remains incomplete.


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