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The Welkin

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 12, 2024

The Cast
Photo by Ahron R. Foster
British playwright Lucy Kirkwood has a propensity for writing big, bold works that draw from real-world events to tackle disturbing subjects in ways that make us consider the larger implications beyond the headlines. Her 2014 Olivier-winning drama Chimerica, for example, emerged from the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in China. And Broadway theatregoers may recall The Children, a 2017 Tony Award nominee that dealt with the aftermath of a nuclear meltdown like the one that occurred in Fukushima, Japan. Now there's The Welkin, opening tonight at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, a courtroom drama that examines women's empowerment over life-and-death matters within a male-dominated system of codified justice.

The Welkin is set in rural Suffolk, England in the year 1759. The title and the year relate to Halley's Comet, whose anticipated appearance provides a slender thread connecting oblique references to the sky with espousals of faith, fear of the supernatural, and, later in Act II, with a fanciful musical interlude that, riding on the comet's tail to the late 20th century, presumably is meant to help us discern a link between past and present.

As long as the play sticks to its main theme, which it does quite well through its first half, it is a splendid mix of mystery, domesticity, bawdy humor, interesting characters, and provocative ideas.

A dozen women from the farming community have been conscripted to determine the fate of one Sally Poppy (Haley Wong), a cantankerous snapping turtle of a young woman who has already been found guilty (by the men of the court, naturally) of murder in the death of a young girl who was found cut into pieces, her body stuffed into a pair of sacks and then shoved up a chimney.

There is little doubt that Sally was, at the very least, an accomplice in the foul deed. And, anyway, that's not why the women have been pressed into service. It seems that at the time the play takes place, there was a long-established tenet of British common law which allowed pregnant women who otherwise would be sentenced to death to "plead the belly" and potentially have their sentences commuted. Knowing this, Sally has declared herself to be with child. Since the mysteries of women's bodies lie within the realm of women, it will be up to these 12 to determine whether she is indeed expectant. Any decision about commutation will then, once more, revert to the hands of the men.

The trial magistrate is eager to close the case, especially since there is a restless mob gathered outside the court thirsting for a hanging. So he has ordered the women to gather for one hour to make a determination. They will be watched over by Mr. Coombes (Glenn Fitzgerald), who is to make sure the process moves along quickly by depriving the women of food, drink, and fire for warmth and light until they reach a unanimous conclusion. For his part, Coombes is to stay in the room, but he is not permitted to speak while the women decide Sally's fate. Needless to say, these rules are not strictly adhered to on either side during this particular gathering, which also is interrupted by a number of intrusions that grow increasingly odd as day turns to dusk.

It is during the deliberations that Lucy Kirkwood has provided the play's finest writing. Each of the women contributes her fair share to the ongoing debate, a female variation on Twelve Angry Men in which sides change as the day progresses and they kibbitz and argue and complain while taking turns glaring at Sally, whose hands are bound but whose tongue is not.

Sally's biggest supporter among the collective gathering is the midwife Elizabeth (Sandra Oh), who prides herself on her knowledge of such matters, while the others are generally more uncertain, unhappy to have been roped into this situation in the first place and eager to pass judgment so they can all go home. Thanks to a splendid cast, including standout performances by Haley Wong, Sandra Oh, Dale Soules, and Hannah Cabell, it is all quite engrossing, well-paced, and smartly directed by Sarah Benson. All the way up to a jolting ending to Act I.

But when the play resumes after intermission, Kirkwood's skillful juggling of style and substance breaks down into a puzzling second act that loses its way by emphasizing style over substance, mired down by a series of melodramatic revelations. A riff on Twelve Angry Men moves tentatively in the direction of The Crucible or possibly even Saint Joan, but it introduces ideas and even new characters that it never fully commits to. The entire enterprise pretty much loses its way altogether once the group breaks out in song before reaching their final decision. Even then, The Welkin takes yet another dramatic turn in the final minutes, this time away from the prosaic to the poetic, so that what started out as a fascinating consideration of the place of women in the criminal justice system has become a muddled and confusing experience.

The Welkin
Through June 30, 2024
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W 20th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: