Review: Women’s Work Is A Bloody Business In ‘The Welkin’

Sandra Oh leads a talented cast in this Lucy Kirkwood play—set in 18th century England—that's both a murder mystery and an exploration of the moral rot of misogyny.

Sandra Oh (center) and the company of The Welkin. Ahron R. Foster

It’s unscientific and unverifiable, but I have a theory that a lot of shabby British playwriting is smoothed over by dazzling British acting. No, I’m not pushing the snobby lie that English actors are just, y’know, better. Their training does generally make them text-forward and apt for verbally dense, rhetorically twisty material. Take Peter Morgan’s Patriots, now on Broadway starring a hard-working Michael Stuhlbarg. I saw it last summer in London, where the magnificent Tom Hollander chewed the scenery with ravenous aplomb. Too bad that said verbal scenery was provided by the schematic and trope-drunk hack behind The Crown. 

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This preamble is not to imply that Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin is shabby. She’s a courageous writer digging into pre-modern feminism and the moral rot of misogyny in visceral, startling ways. And I’m in no way suggesting the mostly American cast of the New York premiere is inferior; they’re a head-turning group of sixteen pros. There’s simply a lag between the very specific English setting (1759, East Anglia) and the non-accented vocal approach that director Sarah Benson has—no doubt carefully—taken. Except for an Australian twang here (Nadia Malouf) and a Scots brogue there (original UK cast member Tilly Botsford), the actors speak sans affectation regardless of class. (Exception: Mary McCann plays a posh dame with a hidden past.) There is an admirable goal of transparency behind this choice. Kirkwood herself encourages diversity wherever the work’s presented, and a scrupulous recreation of rural Georgian England might muddy the political topicality of The Welkin: the sequestering of women from agency, from knowledge of their bodies, from justice. 

Dale Soules, Emily Cass McDonnell, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Tilly Botsford, Susannah Perkins (kneeling), Haley Wong, Paige Gilbert, Simone Recasner and Nadine Malouf (from left) in The Welkin. Ahron R. Foster

Even so, the cadences of Kirkwood’s densely populated and overplotted drama seem off in this Atlantic Theater Company production. The author sprinkles her dialogue with antique regional idioms—mardle for gossip; bunter, slamkin, drag, all variations on a vulgar, low woman—which are colorful if distracting. (Could use a glossary in the program.) Our putative hero, proto-feminist midwife, Lizzy Lake (Sandra Oh), is prone to vehement, eloquent speeches that call to mind George Bernard Shaw stumping for suffragettes. Between the olde English slang and the soapbox diatribes, you imagine the text sprouting more fully in its native soil. Despite it all, once your ear adjusts to the anachronistic filter, it is possible to settle into the admittedly juicy plot.

A horrible crime has occurred in a village. Ann Wax, the young daughter of a well-to-do family, was murdered and dismembered. Alleged perpetrators are quickly apprehended: a Scottish vagabond named Thomas McKay—summarily hanged—and his accomplice, 21-year-old Sally Poppy (Haley Wong), who appears to her husband (Danny Wolohan) crazed, covered in blood and burning a lock of Ann Wax’s hair in the candle. The action of the play proper begins when Lizzy and 11 other women are called to the court for a special duty: to determine is Sally is, as she claims, pregnant. The accused killer has “pled the belly,” and if found pregnant will be transported to America rather than executed.

Haley Wong, Dale Soules and Susannah Perkins (from left) in The Welkin. Ahron R. Foster

Ten minutes or so of back story gets us to the meat of The Welkin: a dozen women locked in a stifling room with the viciously angry, unrepentant Sally, the silent bailiff Coombes (Glenn Fitzgerald), and townspeople outside the window baying for blood. The “jury of matrons” must vote unanimously yea or nay. Whether or not the girl is with child, Lizzy wants her freed. As she tells Coombes (her lover): 

I know she has been tried in a cold room by cold men on the word of a cold husband, with no-one to speak for her and a mob outside the window. Even if she is lying I do not blame her, I would lie too. When a woman is being buried alive, she will reach for even the grubbiest tool to dig herself out again.

Act I is concerned with finding evidence that “she be quick with child,” even if most of the ladies think Sally’s shamming and want her hanged so they can get back to their daily drudgery. The grim and unspeaking Sarah Hollis (Hannah Cabell) palpates Sally’s breasts for milk, while others banter about their own pregnancies and share tips on sex and menstruation, when not mocking the buffoonish Coombes to his face.

Among the genres boldly blended in The Welkin (which naturally evokes Twelve Angry Men and the recent movie Women Talking) it’s a murder mystery that flips into a birth mystery. Is Sally preggers, and is her origin obscurely linked to Lizzy? It’s also a shockingly detailed survey of female life in 18th century England, which obviously (and nauseatingly) resonates today. Their humanity is subsumed in domestic slavery and incessant breeding, their access to healthcare and reproductive services rigidly controlled by men and theology. That we’re still debating these gender inequities and hateful laws is an index of social barbarity. Kirkwood also dips into the folk-horror well when Cabell (spellbinding, as always) breaks years of muteness to tell a story about the Devil and childbirth. The title is an ancient word for the sky—across which Halley’s Comet passes that March day, a spectacular reminder that cosmic and social cycles remain fixed.

In terms of subtleness of structure, The Welkin has its problems. That comet does a lot of heavy metaphorical lifting, and Kirkwood spoon-feeds the audience theme toward the end. She introduces Act II plot twists that border on ridiculous. Even so, Benson’s sturdy, propulsive staging supports a stage full of obscenely gifted performers. The heartbreaking Emily Cass McDonnell’s depressed, childless Helen turns bitterly on her sisters. Susannah Perkins, an intense, elvish redhead, seems to vibrate between genders as a tomboyish (yet pregnant) farmer wife. Frisky and wry Paige Gilbert lights up her bits with saucy irreverence. Wong’s wolfish, self-annihilating Sally delivers a harrowing vision and confession. And Oh blazes equally hot in Lizzy’s witty, indignant speechifying and the depths of maternal horror into which she finally plunges. Kirkwood takes big, violent, not fully satisfying swings, but one must bow before her women. Even though this ensemble can’t “save” the play, I was grateful to witness both. Will it take another 75 years for such a cluster of talent to burn across the heavens? Keep looking up. 

The Welkin | 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. | Atlantic Theater Company | 330 West 20th Street | 646-328-9579 | Buy Tickets Here   


Review: Women’s Work Is A Bloody Business In ‘The Welkin’