nytheatre.com review by Heather McAllister
November 7, 2009
During the time of the Great Depression, the people of our country faced trials of such scope it is almost unimaginable. There was no welfare or WIC or food stamps. There was your family and yourself against the dust, the heat, the floods, the fires. The Depression was crushing for our entire nation, but even more so for the people who provide nourishment to the rest of us. When you're a farmer, your land is everything: your home, your livelihood, your past and present mingled together. How we handled the Great Depression, government and "regular Joe" alike, is a marker for us as a society. Holy Days, a play about the 1930s written in the 1980s—Sally Nemeth's first professional play in her interesting career as a writer—is an examination of one small family of farmers, two men and two women in Kansas in 1936, living their lives, or trying to, one Easter weekend.
My mother always told me my family came from a long line of farmers. This was something she was fiercely proud of, and that sense of satisfaction and service from providing food for others is abundant in this production. I know the people in Holy Days: they work hard, they have a rhythm to their life that follows the rhythm of the seasons. They both serve the earth and are ruled by it. They have small pleasures, but their lives are not small. They are flawed, but good people.
From the oral history I've been told, my grandmother would make sandwiches on her farm in California to hand out to the "Arkies" and "Okies"—as they called themselves—when they passed through, looking for work. But not all people were generous. And many folks couldn't accept help when it was given. That conflict over the merits or shame of charity is palpable in Holy Days, especially in struggling husband and wife farmers Gant and Rosie.
Holy Days builds like the layers of dust from "the blow," the dust that can't be swept away, won't be washed away, but creeps in and ultimately must be endured. Holy Days makes a bargain with the dust, finds a way to make its peace. And like the storm, Retro Productions is a force of nature, with such strength it blew me away.
From the moment Heather E. Cunningham opens the play as Rosie, with a foreshadowing soliloquy of lost flowers, the audience is completely drawn into her world, her family's struggle, her pain, and ultimately her courage. Cunningham's is a performance of such strength, nobility, and beauty she literally left me breathless. Her stunning portrayal grows like a daffodil emerging from the snow until Rosie's inner struggle blossoms so fiercely, so blindingly clear, the empathy we experience is cathartic. I was left literally shaken.
As her complicated sister-in-law Molly, Casandera M. J. Lollar is brutally honest and spot on. Molly is sometimes cold, righteously indignant, spoiled, and selfish, yet at every turn Lollar finds the truth of Molly and unflinchingly shares her, "warts and all." Lollar is a brave and beautiful actress.
The two brothers, Gant and Will, are hard-working, stoic on the outside, and hiding gigantic hearts. Lowell Byers as Will is wonderful; simple, straightforward, and strong. As Gant, Joe Forbrich suppresses such depth that when it rises to the surface like water from a forgotten well it seems to surprise him the same as it surprises the audience.
In the gut-wrenching climax, Cunningham and Forbrich tear your heart out. I was not alone in suppressing sobs. And where I expected this scene to end the play, I was wrong. A shift in the emotional wind comes, a shift in perception ensues.
I think the important thing about this play is this: the people go on. They not only endure, but they live their lives. Faced with a small problem, or a looming disaster, they figure it out, they fix it, they say to God, "Ok, you got me pretty good with that one," and they take hands and ride out the flood, the famine, the fire, together. They are Americans in the best sense of the word. They made me once again proud to come from a long line of farmers.
The final soliloquy sums it up plainly and honestly, as befits these people: it's not so much that God is testing them, but rather measuring them, to see what they're capable of. Their very survival is heroic.
All of the stage elements gather together perfectly. The sound designer Jeanne Travis has chilling effects for the storm, and Woody Guthrie's Depression Era anthems never sounded so poignant and sweet. The set, by design team Jack and Rebecca Cunningham and Justin Sturges, is a beautifully detailed and distressed 1930s kitchen, where the people really eat, and really drink. In a theatre as intimate as Spoon Theatre, anything less would have been distracting. The Franklin stove, the antique kitchen table complete with a drawer, the authentic ice box and pantry filled with canning—all realistic, yet evocative of more. The costumes by Debra Krajec also show great attention to detail, the men's clothes faded and covered in dust, the heartbreaking little overalls. Every piece fits, every element works; even the sewing kit is complete with an antique darning egg, like my grandmother's.
A production like Retro Productions' Holy Days is why I became involved in theatre. A dream cast, each member strong and honest and riveting; a script with importance yet without preaching; wonderful, honest, strong direction by Peter Zinn; beautiful, detailed design. Truth, honesty, and great chops, it's everything that is great about American theatre.