Lucy Thurber’s The Hill Town Plays has much to recommend it but also reveals many shortcomings.
Scarcity (4 stars)
Ashville (3 ½ stars)
Where We’re Born (3 ½ stars)
Killers & Other Family (2 ½ stars)
Stay (1 ½ stars)
Set in the bleak wasteland of Western Massachusetts, Lucy Thurber’s The Hill Town Plays illuminate a young woman’s journey from adolescence to adulthood. By turns grim, and humorous, Thurber’s plays have broken new ground with her depictions of lesbian characters and issues. However, the opportunity to see five interconnected plays in chronological order heightens the sameness of Thurber’s overall theme (being trapped in socio-economic circumstances and the desperate attempt to escape and overcome those circumstances), as well as magnifying her structural problems. Rest assured there will be drinking, smoking and illiteracy if it’s a Lucy Thurber play:
Scarcity, set in 1992 and directed by Daniel Talbott, tells the story of 11-year old Rachel (an excellent Izzy Hanson-Johnston) and her 16-year old brother, Billy (the superb Will Pullen), over-achieving students trapped in a white-trash existence created by their parents, Martha (Didi O’Connell) and Herb (Gordon Joseph Weiss). When Billy seizes an opportunity to escape their intellectual and economical poverty, it leaves Rachel painfully aware that she now faces life on her own.
Ashville, set in 1997 and directed by Karen Allen, receiving its world premiere. Young Celia (Mia Vallet), a 16-year old struggles with her older, suffocating, boyfriend Jake (Joe Tippett) who wants to marry her, her alcoholic mother Shelly (Tasha Lawrence), Shelly’s deadbeat boyfriend Harry (Andrew Garman), a local pot dealer who intrigues her (James McMenamin), and a budding romantic infatuation with Amanda (Aubrey Dollar) who is not ready to go where Celia wants to be taken.
Where We’re Born, set in 2003 and directed by Jackson Gay, finds Lily (Betty Gilpin) coming home from her first semester at college to visit her cousin Tony (Christopher Abbott), Tony’s deadbeat friends and Tony’s girlfriend Franky (MacKenzie Meehan) on whom Lily has secretly had a romantic crush. Where We’re Born takes a disturbing turn as Lily begins a sexual relationship with Franky that backfires when her immaturity disastrously wrecks havoc on everyone she cares about.
Killers & Other Family, set in 2009 and directed by Caitriona McLaughlin, is the most violent of Thurber’s plays and the one where I begin to lose patience with her writing and construction. Killers finds Elizabeth (Samantha Soule) working on her dissertation in New York City when the hillbillies of Western Massachusetts come knocking on her door in the form of her delinquent brother, Jeff (Chris Stack), and her ex-boyfriend Danny (Shane McRae), who’s a deranged psychopath (albeit with rockin’ 6-pack abs) who’s killed a girl back home in a pique of anger. Elizabeth comes unhinged when faced with her white-trash past and the threat of losing her future in front of her girlfriend, Claire (Aya Cash). An hour of drinking, screaming and fighting follow, culminating in an ending that defies credulity.
The last and most disappointing play in the cycle, Stay, set in 2013 and directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch brings us full circle back to Rachel (Hani Furstenberg) and her brother, Billy (McCaleb Burnett), from Scarcity. Thurber employs a kind of ‘magical realism’ in Stay in the form of a ‘Floating Girl’ (Jenny Seastone Stern) who follows Rachel around, perching on top of bookshelves and commenting on the action. It seems Rachel has grown into a woman, now a professor and successful writer, who has mystical abilities to ‘see’ other people’s stories, as does a young student, Julia (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann), who is romantically obsessed with her. Billy, unable to handle his lifelong rage, has been fired from his law firm and shows up unannounced to remind Rachel of the life neither of them has really escaped. The end culminates in a surreal moment of song where we’re not quite sure what’s real and what’s in Rachel’s imagination.
Scarcity plays at Cherry Lane Studio (38 Commerce St), Ashville plays at Cherry Lane (38 Commerce St), Where We’re Born plays at Rattlestick (244 Waverly Pl), Killers & Other Family plays at Axis Theater (One Sheridan Square) and Stay plays at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St) – all five productions play through September 28 (TheatreVillage.com).