Particularly in the Heartland
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 26, 2007
Particularly in the Heartland feels to me like an experiment in process. The TEAM, the ambitious and pugnacious company that created and performs it, has spent a long time putting it together and I suspect that its members have learned a lot about their craft in doing so. It's a jumble of theatrical and intellectual ideas, some of which are compelling and original. But the final product feels like a jumble rather than a cohesive whole; even though I have a sense of what the intent of the piece is, I left it without any real understanding of what the evening is really about (other than itself). The disparate notions remain disparate and the cumulative effect, if sometimes viscerally overwhelming, is finally unsatisfying.
Though its style often wants to defy traditional narrative, Particularly in the Heartland has one: it tells the story of three children of a Born Again Christian family in Kansas—Sarah, Todd, and Anna—who are orphaned during a catastrophic storm that they think is the Rapture but more likely is a devastating tornado. They stitch together a new life in their remote farmhouse, with eldest sibling Sarah quickly taking on the role of parent; and then three strangers mysteriously arrive one at a time to help them create a new family: Traci Jo, the ghost of a pregnant teenager (that's according to the press materials; she says she's an alien and I never heard anything else on stage to suggest anything different); Dorothy, a high-powered businesswoman whose plane crashed, presumably in the same storm; and the ghost of Robert F. Kennedy.
The arc of Heartland is the formation of this new, possibly archetypal American family. One of the most confusing things about the show, though, is why these particular people have been brought together in this play, or what they (or the folks in the audience) are learning from the experience. Kennedy's presence in particular begs all sorts of questions, but the strongly fundamentalist views of the three children also feel problematic: what's typical or quintessentially American about this conglomeration? The fact that the show begins with the cast singing a variety of songs about America and reaches a climax with a sort of post-apocalyptic 4th of July celebration that also coincides with younger sister Anna's birthday party suggests that our country is one of the subjects being examined here. But I don't really know what The TEAM wants me to understand about America from this show.
Mashed-up theatre styles and structures further cloud the issue(s). There are naturalistic sections and there are movement-based sections; there's a long sequence at the end where the family acts out scenes from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol; there's a jarring segment where Sarah breaks the fourth wall to conduct a Q&A session with the audience. What do these different theatrical ideas contribute to the themes being explored? I couldn't work that out.
I was disappointed, too, by Kristen Sieh's grating portrayal of the precocious youngster Anna, especially when contrasted with Frank Boyd's masterful and entirely natural performance as her slightly older brother Todd. Boyd's Todd is all gangly awkwardness, a mischievous but scared little boy trying to behave like what he thinks a man is supposed to be. It's the one characterization that feels authentic and the one that moved me.
The TEAM have energy and craft at their disposal, but their dramaturgs Stephanie Douglass and Chantal Pavageaux have let them down here: Particularly in the Heartland feels refreshing and exciting in places, but in failing to add up to anything, it cannot be judged a success.