|The cast of Knives in Hens. Photo by Gina Watson-Haley.|
Hillsboro’s HART Theatre Tackles a Tough One
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Knives in Hens is miles from what we have come to expect as a “traditional”
County community theatre offering, and
HART Theatre merits high praise for presenting this kind of challenging material
for its audience. When we left the theater, we were unsure about what we had
seen, and we are still talking (read: “arguing”) about the show’s themes.
Darrell’s initial take was to quote Bob Dylan: “Cause something is happening,
and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
The story is, on one level, quite straightforward: a simple village wife takes husband William’s grain to the mill, and spends time alone with miller Gilbert Horne, a mistrusted outsider. She maintains a rigid distance from the miller until she realizes that William’s extensive time in the barn involves a local girl, not just his beloved horses. Disillusioned and angry, the “young woman” (that is the only name she bears in the play) sleeps with the miller, they kill her husband, she tells the neighbors that William has left her for a better woman, she returns to run the farm. The miller moves off to a larger town. The three cast members take their bows.
The challenge for the tiny cast is to infuse this tale with meaning, and the challenge for the audience is to deduce what that meaning is. For us, the key is the contrast between an agrarian, pre-literate society (William and the other farmers), whose world is absolutely literal – no imagination, resistance to change, fear of the onrush of the industrial revolution (which, in this village, is represented by the miller, his stone, and most terrifying, his books). The woman is caught in the middle – everything she has been taught frames her entire existence in terms of commodity – she is her husband’s property, and exists only to serve his will. The miller challenges this definition, and when her anger at William overcomes her fear of the unknown, her world becomes three dimensional and she allows herself to become what was once unthinkable.
The first thing the audience sees is a set of incredible beauty and simplicity, with aromatic cedar planks actually milled by master set designer William Crawford at the sawmill on his farm. The scene is enhanced by subtle lighting and soft Caledonian airs that transport the audience to a nameless time and place evocative of primitive
or Appalachia. The initial beauty contrasts
starkly with the harsh reality of life for William and the woman, and helps to
establish the play’s subtle themes.
Beth Summers as the young woman is the pivotal character in the play. She is a marvelous actress who manages to convey her character’s strength, simplicity, confusion, fear, anger, and ultimately growing awareness of her individuality. She delivers her lines with crystal clarity, and she enhances the dialogue with her fluid body language.
Kalin Lee (William) is well-cast as the rigid, pre-literate dominant male whose world revolves around his perspective. His occasional moments of fleeting tenderness toward the woman do little to soften the mindless cruelty of the life which he imposes on her. Lee’s performance captures the violence, drudgery, and provincialism of the role – even when he quotes from the Bible, his words are hollow repetitions of what he has been told is Truth.
Although the miller ultimately has sex with the woman, his relationship to her is that of an intellectual, rather than a physical, seducer. Actor Eric Lyness is chameleon-like in his shifting use of sarcasm, scorn, attention, and encouragement to draw the woman into his web. By introducing her to a world of books and ideas that she never knew existed, he frees her to define her own path. Lyness is believable as the disenfranchised outsider, whose motives extend beyond the need for carnal pleasure.
This cannot have been an easy show to stage, and Devan McCoy’s wise casting choices and deft direction help give clarity to a sometimes obscure story. We are delighted that the HART is willing to tackle tough shows and trusts its audience to respond – but we are really looking forward to relaxing with Nuncrackers next month!
Knives in Hens runs at HART Theatre in Downtown Hillsboro through November 11. Shows are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. www.hart-theatre.org