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Review: Nashville Story Garden's U.S. Premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's THE WELKIN Will Have Audiences Talking

Director Halena Kays Assembles a Dream Cast for Provocative New Work

Review: Nashville Story Garden's U.S. Premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's THE WELKIN Will Have Audiences Talking

Nothing engages the theaterati in Nashville and the outlying provinces as the production of an eagerly anticipated new play no one's done before in these parts, but about which we've read glowing reviews. The very promise of something new to energize the cultural zeitgeist - particularly under the aegis of Nashville Story Garden (a creative collective whose work always generates major buzz); something new and unseen from across the pond which will provide a showcase for the remarkable talents of some of the region's most respected actors - is virtually guaranteed to be a "must-see" for a theater-going public more accustomed to titles with which they are already quite often overly familiar.

Certainly, that is the case for Nashville Story Garden's current production of Lucy Kirkwood's The Welkin, directed by Halena Kays, now onstage at Riverside Revival in East Nashville through September 30. Kirkwood's ambitious and provocative play, set in a 1759 courtroom in Suffolk, England, centers on a group of women brought together to mete out justice for a young, rather "loose," as she'd be known in earlier, "polite" society (she stood accused of the murder by her cuckolded husband, among others), woman convicted of murdering a young girl (who we see in a video snippet at the top of Act Two, playing aeroplanes in a verdant meadow - an anachronism we'll come back to later in this review).

In fact, the gallows has already been erected outside the courtroom and a crowd is gathered to witness the impending execution when Sally Poppy (played with a razor-sharp edge by Ayla Williams) tells her jailers that she is pregnant which, if true, will commute her sentence, at least temporarily (or maybe for the rest of her life; the acoustics at Riverside Revival - a much-sought-after event space that has lovely, refinished floors, soaring ceilings and tall windows and would be ideal for a wedding, but which seems unsuited to live theater - are abysmal, so I caught about 50 percent of the dialogue in Act One).

Review: Nashville Story Garden's U.S. Premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's THE WELKIN Will Have Audiences Talking
Lauren Berst

In a society in which women are given little, if any, agency over their bodies or their lives, this "jury of matrons" is empaneled to render judgment they are loath to make. For varying reasons, the women question the motives of the men who insist they suss out the truth about Sally's pregnancy, the underlying realities of each of their lives that separate them, and perhaps more importantly that which draws them together as women. The matrons' deliberations are sometimes subdued and rather genteel, at others quite raucous as the divisions among the women are brought to the fore and unspoken, but not unknown, secrets about one another are revealed.

We first meet the assemblage of women of the village in question at the top of Act One when they are arrayed in a striking tableau in front of us, backlit behind a collection of white bed linens drying in the midday sun to show us the day-to-day drudgery of the women's lives. Compellingly, another tableau at the end of the play reminds us that no matter how much things have changed in the almost three centuries hence, the more they have stayed the same, with women in the 21st century often still resigned to a life of drudgery, their full promise dampened by the misogyny and repression that continues to this day. Trust me when I say that you'll be startled by this realization time and again during The Welkin and you'll be thinking about it for some time to come after the final curtain.

Review: Nashville Story Garden's U.S. Premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's THE WELKIN Will Have Audiences Talking
Melinda Sewak

Ostensibly, if you are paying attention in the very first scene to follow that opening tableau, you'll find that midwife Elizabeth Luke (Lauren Berst is sublime in the role, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes raging) seems the main protagonist in Kirkwood's lively and sharply written play - she is the first woman in the village to whom we are introduced and we are given more of her backstory initially, with even more revealed as the play's action continues. However, Kirkwood has written her play as a true ensemble piece and at some point in time, we get to know more and more about each of the women (one girl - Lizzie's daughter, played by Milly Mason on opening night, takes her place at the butter churn when she leaves for court - and a couple of men - Joe Mobley, ideal as the bailiff Mr. Coombes, who has a yen for Lizzie if not his own wife, and Matthew Rose as Sally's aforementioned husband and a doctor brought in to give a medical opinion on her pregnancy) seen onstage.

Kirkwood's use of imagery, which fuels not only the imaginations of her characters but for her audience as well, includes startling anachronisms which, rather than take you out of the time and place of The Welkin, instead rivets your attention to its sometimes shocking revelations which underscore the themes of women's roles remaining largely unchanged over the course of history, with many of the same expectations still held of women today as they were hundreds of years ago.

Review: Nashville Story Garden's U.S. Premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's THE WELKIN Will Have Audiences Talking
Tamara Todres

The conversation that ensues among the women runs the gamut of topics and issues that are always a part of life, some of which are highly personal, others that are universal and some that may be surprising (particularly from a 2022 cocoon that's kept you ignorant of anything that's happened before you were born). Kirkwood's splendid use of the English language oftentimes sounds typical of mid-18th century English dialects (the "welkin" of the play's title means "the heavens" or "the skies," according to sources I consulted), while certain anachronistic flourishes help to establish the timelessness, the never-changing aspects of concerns and conversations in which people are wont to engage when they are unfiltered by social mores and convention. Theater is the perfect place for these kinds of dialogues, to be certain, and director Kays and her stunning ensemble of players make wonderful use of their opportunities to engage and enthrall their audience.

While the production's venue leaves much to be desired, you may rest assured that Kays (whose deft directorial hand is readily apparent throughout the almost three hours of the play) and her cast more than compensate for its shortcomings with a plethora of outstanding performances. Williams and Berst are nothing short of spectacular (no hyperbole here, gentle readers, just an honest reaction) in their roles and their onstage chemistry is alarming. But they are surrounded by actors who are equally as adept, delivering performances that are by turn stunning, delightful, amusing and entertaining.

The production's cast list reads like a virtual who's who of Nashville theater, with The Welkin boasting an astonishing professional pedigree. In addition to the players already mentioned in this review, consider the riches assembled therein thanks to the presence of Destine Monet, Melodie Madden Adams, Tamara Todres, Candace Omnira-Lafayette, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, Rachel Agee, Jordan Bentley (who plays Lizzie's daughter in the final three showings), Jessica Anderson, Megan Murphy Chambers, Inez, Rona Carter and Melinda Sewak. Diego Gomez was out on opening night (Mobley, the production's assistant director, filled in) and Brooke Ferguson understudies all the women's roles.

Review: Nashville Story Garden's U.S. Premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's THE WELKIN Will Have Audiences Talking It is neither an understatement, nor is it fulsome exaggeration, that I could spend the better part of the upcoming week writing about each actor's skills. Suffice it to say, this is an ensemble about which we may only usually dream.

The production's scenic design is provided by Jonathan Nicholson, who does a fine job of creating a timeless, yet very specific, setting for the piece, while Tony Nappo's lighting design illuminates every moment with finesse. Jillian Frame provides the excellent props designs.

The Welkin. By Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Halena Kays. Assistant direction by Joe Mobley. Stage managed by Eve Petty and Lindsay Arnone. Dialect coaching by Tamara Todres. Presented by Nashville Story Garden. At Riverside Revival, Nashville. Through September 30. For details and ticket information, go to www.NashvilleStoryGarden.org.



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From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)


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