The Hill Town Plays

nytheatre.com review by Cory Conley
August 28, 2013

"Who knew that being away would make us so homesick?"

Those are the words spoken by Jeff to Danny in the middle of Lucy Thurber's bleak and brutal play, Killers and Other Family, at the Axis Theater. The "home" of which Jeff speaks is the one up in the country, which they recently fled due to Danny's murder of a local girl. Seeking money for a getaway to Mexico, they've landed at the New York apartment of Jeff's sister, Lizzie. She's less than thrilled to see them, partly because she's about to finish her doctoral thesis, and partly because she and Danny have, well, a past--- the kind that involves a broken home and a serious dose of statutory rape. It gets even messier when Lizzie's girlfriend Claire comes home early for lunch, only to be entrapped in this cauldron of manipulation, score-settling, and eventually some awful violence.

But back to the "homesick" part. Jeff's unwitting insight--- that the more we escape our past, the more we're strangely drawn back to it--- would seem to be the key to understanding The Hill Town Plays, the unhappy series of five by Thurber currently running in theaters around the West Village and presented by the Rattlestick Playwright's Theater. Thurber's lead characters, all of them female, are always in the process of escaping (or have already escaped) their desperate small-town circumstances. But the past has a way of catching up, and whatever their fancy adulthood laurels, these women find themselves haunted by a family background that failed them over and over again.

Except for Killers, which unfolds in that fairly well-appointed Manhattan apartment, all of the plays take place in the Hill Towns of Pioneer Valley, a lush and largely rural section of Western Massachusetts. The region is known for its unspoiled views and draws plenty of upscale tourism, but the folks who inhabit Thurberland are not the type to spend the day antiquing. Jobs are of the grungy, physical sort, and most free time is spent in the company of illicit substances.

Let's start with Rachel, the volatile preteen at the heart of Scarcity, at the Cherry Lane Studio. She's the youngest of Thurber's heroines, and she has the burden of navigating an abusive alcoholic father, an enabling mother, and a gifted older brother, Billy, who's bent on escape. Billy has come under the protective wing of his teacher Ellen, whose motives are not strictly professional. When Billy lands the opportunity to attend a prestigious boarding school, Rachel goes positively nuts, fearing that he'll leave her behind and never come back. "I don't know how much more I can take," she moans.

We next meet this young woman in Ashville, at the Cherry Lane Mainstage, though she's now called Celia. (Thurber has explained that while all of the plays feature "the same girl," she decided to vary the names and circumstances a bit for each.) Celia is sixteen, living with her broken mother and boyfriend Jake, a local burnout who thinks of himself as Celia's sole protector (reminding her as often as he can) and who soon proposes marriage. Celia, though, is rather entranced by Amanda, the girl down the block who can recite Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" from memory, along with a charming interpretive dance. Celia's sexual awakening has begun, and by the end of "Ashville," we get the sense that she's headed for better things.

So she is. In Where We're Born, at the Rattlestick, Lilly (as she's now called) returns home from a semester at college in Northampton, where she made the honor roll and may or may not be dating a "rich guy with a BMW." At home, she's staying with her cousin Tony and his girlfriend Franky, ending up in a complicated romantic situation involving both of them. In the meantime, they share drinks with hometown friends like Vin, who goes on a memorable rant about "red-blooded Americans" being pushed aside by brown-skinned folk. "Soon they'll be coming up here and I got my gun," he says, in a reminder of the attitudes that Lilly has been trying to escape.

After that is Killers, mentioned above, followed at last by Stay, at the New Ohio, which brings us back to the plights of Rachel and Billy, names and all. Twenty years later, she's a successful writer and visiting professor at a small liberal arts college, while he recently lost his job at a law firm for hitting the boss's daughter after an illicit affair. (The daughter was "this cute little rich button and she'd get so hot when I'd tell her stories about Mom, Dad, and my poverty roots," he observes.) A student named Julia comes into Rachel's office, confessing that she's "obsessed" with her, and soon they're enmeshed in a passionate fling, which rather upsets Julia's boyfriend, Tommy. Unable to trust much of anything by now, Rachel starts manically wondering whether anyone will stay around in her life--- including her imaginary friend (or muse) known only as Floating Girl.

Taken as a whole, Thurber's portrait is both incisive and unyielding in its detailing of life on the margins. Scarcity and Where We're Born are, among the five, the most fully satisfying nights at the theater. Killers was simply too implausible and casually violent for my taste, and it felt like an unwelcome disruption from the kitchen-sink realism of the others. Stay also experiments with its theatricality, faring better, but the final third of the play--- an extended lesbian fantasia that ends in song--- doesn't make much sense. (I also questioned the need for the many monologues about the horror of Billy and Rachel's childhood, having already seen an entire play about it.)

Ashville, receiving its world premiere, demonstrates both Thurber's talent and some of her less appealing habits as a writer. As these characters ramble through life, so does their dialogue often lack any shape or texture of its own. Scenes end abruptly, people shift emotions instantly, and the plot unfolds with laborious slowness. This can be disorienting, especially because the lives on display seem so unremittingly bleak. The audience is sometimes forced to share in the misery, without a firm moral center to grasp onto, or even a dash of real humor to mitigate the suffering. It's like watching raw footage of a long, sad, subtle decline, without the honing work of an editor and without a thoughtful, specific point of view. Perhaps, with time and through other productions, Ashville will come into its own.

There are moments, and performances, that will linger. The directing and acting across all five plays is uniformly excellent, but there are standouts. These include: Mia Vallet as the troubled, beautiful adolescent Celia; Samantha Soule as Elizabeth, and especially Aya Cash as the put-upon girlfriend Claire; the entire ensemble of Where We're Born, which blends together harmoniously in their scenes together; Didi O'Connell as the acidic mother in Scarcity; and Hani Furstenberg and McCaleb Burnett as the grown-up Rachel and Billy in Stay. The set designs of both Stay (by Rachel Hauck) and Ashville (by John McDermott) were especially inventive.

And: try not to miss Scarcity. Dark it may be, but the tight script has been thrillingly directed by Daniel Talbott and is zestfully performed by the company. You certainly wouldn't want to live in this run-down apartment, with the drinking, the screaming, the slamming doors, the police visits, the adultery, and the constant threat of sexual abuse. But it's the most vivid and true offering of The Hill Town Plays, and it suggests that physical escape is certainly possible, even if the wounds never quite heal. As Rachel's Dad says to her, in an unusually friendly though impossible-to-follow bit of advice: "The trick is kid, you’ve got to learn to ignore us. If you can, just learn to do that; you’ll be O.K."

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