Women’s Project of City Lit Theater

Kelly Nespor deserves some kind of marathon award for her role as the first-person narrator in A Farm Under a Lake. The Women’s Project of City Lit Theater’s adaptation of the novel by Martha Bergland runs a little under two and a half hours with one intermission, and Nespor has well over four-fifths of the lines. That’s a long time to be talking. Most impressive is that Nespor and the rest of this talented cast manage to make every second of it interesting and compelling.

The arduous structure of the script is probably unavoidable. Bergland’s narrative is largely an internal monologue by Janet Hawn (Nespor), a private-care nurse in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who volunteers to drive an elderly patient some 500 miles to see her relatives in Quincy, Illinois. Since her passenger is only marginally aware of her immediate surroundings, the long drive gives Janet plenty of time to contemplate the people, places, and events of her life: the farm in southern Illinois, her childhood home, which had to be sold; the neighboring family that bought it; their two sons, Jack, whom she married out of acquiescence to other people’s plans, and Carl, whom she loved and continues to love with a kinship bred of their love for the land; her father’s second wife, who on the eve of Janet’s wedding instructs her how to run away from husbands (“Don’t ever let it get so bad that you have to go and leave your dishes,” she intones solemnly); the displaced farmer Janet remembers only as the Cabbage Man, whose sense of humor finally fails him, with tragic results; and Carl’s wife, Shirley, who shares with Jack a frustrated desire to belong in a white-collar world–an ambition that dooms them both to being forever out of place, like “a farm under a lake.”

Janet’s road trip leads, not into a heart of darkness, but back to her roots. It offers the leisure to review her 40-some years, which eventually leads her to reevaluate her priorities and to act on them in a manner that’s both true to her own beliefs and compassionate to those she loves. The silent presence of her ancient traveling companion, who has her own claim to membership among the women who “put their foot in the road,” assists Janet in her decision.

The economy and lyricism of Bergland’s language mean that the minutes of this epic-length play slip by for us as quickly as the miles do for the characters. The mood can be casual (Janet notes wryly that “Jack was using up some of Carl’s air”) or intense (Janet muses that “[Jack] had become ‘self-reliant’–a cult which I was expected to join. . . . He only reminded me of the man I had married. I left, feeling neither guilt nor relief.”) But all of it succeeds in evoking, on a tiny stage, the sense of sweeping plains and ageless grandeur and an awareness of the nobility of those who work the earth.

Ultimately, though, A Farm Under a Lake owes its success to the performers, led by Nespor, an actress with an irregular beauty both common and singular as well as the ability to find grace notes in the most mundane utterance. David Ward plays the faithful Carl with a rough-and-ready grace, while Kevin Kelly as Jack conveys the futile struggle of a man born to be in second place. Natalie Stein, dignified and enigmatic as a sphinx, brings a subtle and sharp-witted sensitivity to the almost wordless role of Janet’s cargo, while the indomitable Corrine Lyon makes the matron at the end of the road as jolly and capable a daughter as any mother could want. Page Hearn has some fine and human moments as Janet’s boyishly irresponsible father.

Adapters Mark Richard and Kelly Thompson, who also both directed, have taken a story that could easily have lain as dead and fallow as–well, as a farm under a lake, and made it blossom. I will watch the ground much more closely after seeing this play, searching for signs of spring.


Women’s Project of City Lit Theater

All the Rage, a collection of stories, songs, poems, and dances also developed by the Women’s Project of City Lit and running in repertory with A Farm Under a Lake, is much more entertaining and thought-provoking if one doesn’t read the program. We don’t need to be told that this show is “a theatrical exploration of women and abuse.” One may view Boccaccio’s fable, “Patient Griselda,” as an illustration not of the way males tyrannize over females but of the way 14th-century monarchs tyrannized over their subjects. Likewise apache dancing is less a choreographed battle of the sexes than a romanticized bourgeois fantasy of courting customs among the “more passionate” lower classes.

Fortunately the directors and performers of All the Rage do not restrict us to only one message. Though there are three pieces that adhere so closely to formula that the characters may as well have numbers, the rest allow us to interpret as we see fit and to draw our own conclusions.

Worthwhile performances include Karen Pratt’s as the narrator of Mary Gordon’s “Violation” (directed by Franette Liebow), in which a woman looks back on two incidents of her youth and acknowledges the wrong done her but recognizes that neither event has had a greatly debilitating effect (a point of view rarely articulated in these victim-centered times). Tina Thuerwachter gives a refreshing gravity to recitations of two poems by Jo Carson (directed by Jensen Wheeler), the most memorable of which tells of a mother who carefully prepares a week’s worth of dinners for her bachelor son while she rehearses the speech with which she will someday refuse to continue this service. Warren Davis, Duane Sharp, David Barbee, and Rich Komenich play assorted males with ingenuous humor and uncaricatured vulnerability–especially Komenich, whose homely, bashful countenance makes the incestuous father in Mona Simpson’s “Lawns” (directed by Kathryn Gallagher) less a bullying monster than a hideously overgrown child looking for a playmate (a dynamic not overlooked by his daughter, who admits “I gave the orders. He was the one who fell in love”). There is also a technically proficient but ultimately boring “Dance d’Apache” in three movements, choreographed by Jim Corti and performed by Wheeler and John Peltoma. The remainder of the ensemble display varying degrees of skill (Valerie Fashman seems more concerned with the techniques of delivery than with content). But all work together to make the show’s themes clear without preaching to the converted.