Ever watch Terms of Endearment back-to-back with its soul-crushing follow-up, The Evening Star? One of the takeaways from the films (far more so than in their Larry McMurtry-penned sources) was how completely the sense of hope that despite tragedy and major parental flaws and obstacles, the next generation might get to experience a better life, was deflated. The Hill Town Plays – a quintet of plays including previously performed works and one world premiere, all demonstrating the askew but unflinching view of playwright Lucy Thurber – operates under a similar mentality. In each play, a character wants out of their stunted, repressed life, only too often to be stifled by forces both within and around them. It is a labor of love that might occasionally feel laborious, but is mostly, in the end, about love, how we reject it, and how we attempt to reclaim it.
Though familiar with Thurber’s work, I’d not been able to witness any of The Hill Town Plays, before, and I’m glad I had to wait until now. In what has to be considered the first essential event of the current New York theatre season, Rattlestick Playwrights have coordinated this five-show run at four separate downtown venues, and this herculean effort allows one to chart the evolution of one young woman over the course of a cycle not unlike ones created by Horton Foote, Eugene O’Neill and Robert Schenkkan in the past. For example, while Thurber’s most potent play, Scarcity, focuses on the efforts of Billy (newcomer Will Pullen, in a solid, wholly credible turn) to break free from the squalor of his Western Massachusetts home with the help of an interested teacher, Ellen (Natalie Gold), the work is notable for introducing us to 11-year-old Rachel (Izzy Hanson-Johnston), our through-line for these plays. Under the humane direction of Daniel Talbott, Scarcity enables audiences to see the prevalence of violence and self-destructive tendencies in the households of the poor, unmotivated, and otherwise broken-down (he’s aided by Joel Moritz’s clever lighting and Raul Abrego’s set design). And while the performances of Pamela Shaw and Gordon Joseph Weiss feel sometimes overwrought, Didi O’Connell stencils in all sorts of nuance, sexuality, humor and even tenderness as Martha, Billy and Rachel’s tough turkey of a mother. Watching her is a marvel, and her work in Scarcity only further confirms her as the Colleen Dewhurst of the modern era.
Other plays chart the growth of the Rachel character, though she goes by different names and exists in different realities. For instance, the Karen Allen-directed Ashville, receiving its world premiere, finds Celia a world-weary sixteen-year-old (played by Mia Vallett), contending with a toxic mother, Shelly (an earthy, eerie, wonderful Tasha Lawrence), Shelly’s untrustworthy new boyfriend (Andrew Garman, digging way deep beneath the surface), and her own loyal boyfriend, Jake (a solid Joe Tippett). Vallett embraces the anxiety Thurber throws her character’s way, even as it makes her character reach out in odd ways, including to characters played by Aubrey Dollar and James McMenamin.
One of the joys that comes with watching all five Hill Town entries is the mapping between characters; one need not see them in chronological order to respond to the growth in one play of seeds planted in another. And so it is with Jackson Gay’s Where We’re Born, which I found the least engaging of the quintet, if only because the stakes seemed relatively benign. The Rachel character, now Lilly (Betty Gilpin), and on a break from college at Amherst, stays with her cousin, Tony (an impressive Christopher Abbott, showing the wheels turning beneath Tony’s seeming blunt-headedness). MacKenzie Meehan as Franky, Tony’s girlfriend, and Daniel Abeles and Nick Winthrop Lawson as Tony’s ne’er-do-well friends all acquit themselves nicely here as people who know their place in the world, feasting like all of Thurber’s characters do on a royal banquet of alcohol and cigarettes, but I wish I felt more of the push-pull Lilly felt between her old world and the new one; the choices she makes here come off as merely transitory. It’s the one work of the cycle in which I never really worried that the “Rachel” character would emerge unscathed.
Those worries arrive early and constantly throughout Caitriona McLaughlin’s Killers and Other Family, which is the most overt example in the Thurber canon that you can’t ever fully leave home. It is also, in addition to Scarcity, the best acted of the cycle, thanks to a harrowing Samantha Soule as Elizabeth, now a New York graduate student struggling with her dissertation (although what she is studying remained a mystery to me) and other issues that become apparent when her brother, Jeff (Chris Stack), and her ex-boyfriend Danny (Shane McRae) show up at her door, fleeing a particularly violent crime (Aya Cash rounds out the uniformly superb cast as Elizabeth’s current roommate). Fight director UnkleDave’s Fight-House deserves top billing for Killers, though, as the play plummets (and returns) Elizabeth to a life where sex and violence and love are all entwined. Note to the squeamish: this might be the play you choose to omit if you can’t see all five of the Hill Town plays. But it’s essential viewing for completists; if I had just seen Killers, I might have felt it overblown and underdrawn. Taken in tandem with the rest of the cycle, however, it’s heartbreakingly illuminating.
Rachel (now as Hani Furstenberg) returns in Stay, the final piece of the puzzle (directed by Gaye Taylor upchurch), and the one in which Thurber pushes herself the most to find a new voice. I’m not sure it entirely works. Rachel is now an English professor at a small liberal arts school, pursued by a student Julia (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann) with some odd intuitions and followed by a character named Floating Girl (Jenny Seastone-Stern). As Seastone-Stern hops around, Wild Child-style (set designer Rachel Hauck deserves major props for creating a set malleable enough for quick scene changes and also sturdy enough for Seastone-Stern to climb repeatedly), one wonders who she is? Guardian angel? Split personality? Superego to Rachel’s id? Thurber doesn’t fully explore this, instead distracting the audience by the reappearance of Billy (now McCaleb Burnett, convincing), an Ivy League-educated attorney who can’t seem to get out of his way. I couldn’t help but feel in this instance that Thurber had given up right when things were picking up.
This is where fans of Endearment – as well as those who stayed on for the later seasons of Roseanne – might understand the frustration of seeing these characters’ arrested development. Thurber gives no sign of a happy ending or a clean bill of mental health, and laces her works with vitriol to spare. And while some of the plays felt individually undernourished, the overall meal proves that Thurber is doing something vital here, doing more than just providing fly-on-the-wall entertainment. As audience members, now we, too, have seen the cruelty that can be inflected among loved ones, and we can never say we haven’t been told about the horrors on display. Yes, the five plays running concurrently may feel redundant in its depiction of a one-step-up-two-steps-back way of life, but this back-and-forth tale of regression marks a major move forward for this essential contemporary playwright, as she finds a voice for those still struggling to tell their story.
The Hill Town Plays
At the Cherry Lane Theater, Mainstage, 38 Commerce Street, West Village; www.theatervillage.com. Through Sept. 28.
Killers and Other Family
At the Axis Theater, 1 Sheridan Square, Greenwich Village; theatervillage.com. Through Sept. 28.
At the Cherry Lane Studio Theater, 38 Commerce Street, West Village; theatervillage.com. Through Sept. 28.
At the New Ohio Theater, 154 Christopher Street, West Village; theatervillage.com. Through September 28.
Where We’re Born
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 244 Waverly Place, West Village; theatervillage.com. Through Sept. 28.
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