Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Watermelon Hill
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of A Night with Janis Joplin


Aeysha Kinnunen, Emily Gunyou Halaas,
and Adelin Phelps

Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
I missed Watermelon Hill when History Theatre mounted its world premiere in 2001, so was pleased that the theater was bringing it back in its 2015-2016 season. Written by Lily Baber Coyle, and inspired by Linda Back McKay's book "Shadow Mothers," it is about the Saint Paul Catholic Infants Home, dubbed Watermelon Hill, that provided an out-of-sight shelter for girls who had gotten, as they said in the 1950s, "in trouble," to spend the months of their unplanned pregnancy, give the baby up for adoption, and then return to their old lives as if none of it had ever happened. I had heard good things about Watermelon Hill, so I welcomed a chance to see it for myself. And yet, I was not expecting the excellence awaiting me on all fronts of this revival—first and foremost, a skillfully written script that deals with sensitive, personal stories with both grace and humor.

The Saint Paul Catholic Infants Home, founded in 1954, was housed in a sedate looking old residence within a secluded residential neighborhood. It operated as a residential home for unmarried mothers-to-be until the early 1970s, when it switched to providing out-patient services to pregnant women in need. The home not only cared for the mothers, but arranged for the adoption of each baby, ostensibly to a loving family, a family judged to be "better" for having not strayed against the societal and church taboo against unmarried sex.

Knowing that Watermelon Hill is the story of three expectant mothers, I anticipated a play that ricocheted among three narratives. To be sure, these three roommates at the infant home are each a very different type: Chatter-box high school student Sharon (Adelin Phelps) is somewhat shallow, simple and naive about adulthood; good-hearted first year college student Leah (Aeysha Kinnunen), raised on a lake resort in northern Minnesota, is torn between keeping her baby or resuming her education funded by a full scholarship she worked hard for; and second year college student Joan, whose parents don't even know where she is, has a sharp but cynical sense of humor, and carries a personal sense of dread—and, oh yes, she is Jewish.

We first meet Sharon, Leah, and Joan years forward. They have not forgotten (as they were promised they would) the infant they bore and gave up. One has connected with her twenty-year-old son, one struggles to connect only to be rebuffed, and one is unwilling or unable to even try. We also look back with them at the incidents that led to their pregnancies, and how they and others handled the shock. In spite of their differences, a common narrative emerges among these three young women, so that while we certainly recognize their varied backgrounds, hopes, goals, and feelings about having and then giving up their babies, we also witness a common cord bind them together. They are visited by the home's nuns, priest, doctor, and social worker. They go on shopping outings, helping each other withstand the judgmental looks of passers-by. They advise each other on how to ensure the child-placement social worker considers their baby worthy of placement in a high quality home, they go to confession, trade magazines, make bets on the delivery dates of other residents in the home, and they pray.

The production is directed by Anya Kremenetsky as a seamless tapestry of the thoughts, memories, feelings, and actions of the three main characters that never loses its motion or its focus. In those roles, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Aeysha Kinnunen, and Adelin Phelps create rich portraits of three young women who face the same crisis in their lives, each with distinctive past histories and personal outlooks. Halaas captures Joan's outer bitterness as well as her inner agony. Phelps is excellent as the teenage Sharon, who at first seems empty headed, but over the course of her ordeal shows signs of the mature woman she will become. Kinnunen most clearly brings her heart to the story, suffering over multiple losses and striving to discern what will really be best, both for her and her child.

Sean Dillon and Janet Hayes Trow complete the cast, playing an assortment of men and women orbiting around the lives of the three protagonists. Dillon pivots effectively between self-centered young men, a wise doctor, and a clueless priest. Trow convinces is turn as a scarifying nun, a manipulative social worker, and as two mothers with very different dreams for their "in trouble" daughters

Rick Polenek designed a clever set of intersecting platforms that serve as beds for the three roommates, with built in drawers for stowing blankets and pillows, and E. Amy Hill's costumes are authentic to the mid 1960s. Kathy Maxwell's lighting design distinguishes clearly between the play's primary Catholic Infant Home setting and other locations, as well as flash-backs and the flash-forwards. Effective sound design by C. Andrew Mayer includes three songs from the era that poignantly capture the tone of Watermelon Hill: "Dedicated to the One I Love" as the play opens, "Chains" at the start of the second act and, as the play's heart-gripping ending hits us, "How Glad I Am," the 1964 hit by Nancy Wilson that starts with the lines "My love has no beginning, my love has no end."

Watermelon Hill is a look back at what women—in many cases, girls—endured fifty years ago facing a rigid double standard between male and female behavior, lacking sex education, access to birth control, or choice regarding unplanned pregnancy. Great shame washed over these unwed mothers and left life-long scars on their spirits. In many ways vast progress has been made on these fronts, but continued limits to reproductive healthcare and gender equity make it important to look back at recent history and recognize that, as we have changed since then, we can continue to change. That lesson wrapped in a play that offers both tenderness and humor, and presented by a highly talented cast, makes this return to Watermelon Hill most welcome.

Watermelon Hill continues at History Theatre through April 10, 2016. 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets from $20.00 - $38.00; senior (age 60+) discount available, student tickets $15.00. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.

Writer: Lily Baber Coyle, based on ideas in the book Shadow Mothers by Linda Back McKay; Director: Anya Kremenetsky; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: E. Amy Hill; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Designer: Merritt Rodriguez; Scenic Artist: Dee Skogen; Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson.

Cast: Sean Dillon (Priest, Doctor, and others), Emily Gunyou Halaas (Joan), Aeysha Kinnunen (Leah), Adelin Phelps (Sharon), Janet Hayes Trow (Sister Thadeus, Mom, and others).


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