British Playwright Presents Harrowing Vision of Early America
At the end of “Nest,” the harrowing play that had its world premiere at the Signature Theatre, the chaplain to an unmarried woman who was hanged in 1809 for infanticide comments: “We look at ourselves as distinct,” but “no one is one person.”
Complexities of character and moral ambiguities are at the heart of this new work commissioned by Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, written by British-born playwright Bathsheba Doran, and directed by Joe Calarco, winner of three Helen Hayes awards.
Doran depicts American ambivalence toward sexuality through the true story of Susanna Cox, an indentured servant in early 1800s Pennsylvania. The play is a complex interplay of issues such as expansive freedom, violence, differences in social classes, righteousness, piety and the rigors of a newly minted nation—all of which to a degree resonates with today’s times as well.
According to director Calarco, “Nest” is a disturbing play, “alternately hilarious and heartbreaking.” For instance, when Susanna asks if she is a slave, her master Jacob quickly replies, “No. We paid your father for you.” The audience laughs, but not comfortably.
“Nest” opens with a number of quickly shifting two-person scenes that spotlight the main characters. There’s wealthy but restless Elizabeth (Vanessa Lock), who leads refined book discussions while her out-of-work husband Jacob (Charlie Matthes) longs for urban action in bustling Philadelphia.
Their servant Susanna (Anne Veal) appears as a strange and initially mute presence. Veal, a third-year student at American University, provides a strong performance as the simple, sturdy and initially repressed young woman who has worked in the household for 10 years. We meet her character rocking on the floor alone as a curious Jacob quizzes her, introducing a sexual wrestling match that the playwright conducts with the audience.
Described as a work “for mature audiences,” “Nest” quickly hits the audience with a Jacob-Susanna discussion on the perils of masturbation, which leads to scenes that feature frank sex—but no nudity—and frank talk. In fact, in preview performances several theatergoers walked out each night. “If 20 people left, we’d have a problem,” said playwright Doran. “If it’s only a few, I figure I’m doing my job.”
And that is to disturb. The sexual content is serious, not prurient, and to underscore this disturbance, the script and direction take a new turn into the surreal after these initial scenes. The set darkens, and we see many or all of the characters on stage at the same time, with simultaneous dialogues and an ever-shifting focus, which brings a dense, dance-like quality to the production.
Enter real-life pioneer and hunter Daniel Boone (Richard Pelzman), who wanders the stage commenting to the characters and the audience as if he was a ghostlike chorus, both violent and profane. Boone talks misogynist sex and sings bawdy ballads, repeatedly referring to the feminine “cuckoo’s nest.” He also delivers Susanna’s son, later describing the blood of the child’s death.
Boone is intended to be a man of mystery, according to Pelzman. “It’s not clear who he is, other than a symbol of nature and the natural, of the expanding West and freedom,” he said, noting that it’s open for debate “whether he’s a real character or something in Susanna’s mind.”
As the play proceeds, there is an increasing and highly effective use of “folk” music, much of it original, with lyrics by the playwright and music by the production’s sound designer, Matthew Nielson.
Susanna is brought to trial and condemned to execution for the death of her son, whose father, Jacob, is also implicated in the baby’s death.
Meanwhile, in a comic comment on the hypocrisy of high art and the not-so-tender mercies of the media, a Ben Franklin-like publisher named Drumble (played by James Slaughter) and an idealistic young poet (Michael Grew) go from debating Socrates, sonnets and American philosophy to churning out a series of entertaining stories each week based on Susanna’s plight.
When Susannah’s appeal is turned down, Drumble has one of the key comments in the play, telling Jacob that other unmarried women, fearful of social condemnation, have also killed their infants—“and your servant is the vaccination against this epidemic.”
The title of “Nest,” according to the playwright, has multiple meanings: It’s the feminine “cuckoo’s nest” as well as a symbol of home, “of nesting and trying to build a home.” However, “it can also refer to a nest of snakes.”
“Nest” has some rough patches to it. The language generally hews to a certain formality to suggest the 19th century but is unevenly successful in this undertaking, particularly in the opening scenes. And the beautifully orchestrated and carefully choreographed scenes become so dense in the end that whole swathes of words get lost. But a bit of straining and the ticket fee are a small price to pay to attend this powerful debut.
Nest through June 24 Signature Theatre 2800 S. Stafford St., Arlington, Va. Tickets are to . For more information, please call (703) 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.
About the Author
Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.