Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

In the Green
Theatre Elision
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of On Beckett, Hells Canyon and Wine in the Wilderness

Annie Schiferl, Diedre Cochrane, and Abilene Olson
Photo by Jolie Morehouse Olson
Theatre Elision has found another exquisite jewel of a musical, one that makes up for its tiny scale with the depth of its message and the crystalline beauty of its music. In the Green, by Grace McLean, is based on the Catholic Saint Hildegard von Bingen who lived in 12th century Germany. Hildegard was a multi-faceted woman, with accomplishments as a religious writer, philosopher, mystic, medical writer and practitioner, preacher, and a composer, whose soaring melodies went beyond the constraints of the traditional Gregorian chants of the era.

Hildegard and her compositions regained attention in recent decades in an effort to understand the historic role of women in the church and expand upon women's roles in the modern church. She was certainly not a typical women of the church at her time, for she broke many boundaries, such as being granted permission by church leaders to write down her visions and to preach at church gatherings, rights previously granted only to men.

However, In the Green doesn't venture into the boundary-breaking events of her later life–she lived to be 81–but focuses on her life from the age of eight, when family tithed her to a monastery as an oblate, to live her life dedicated to Christ and God. Once in the monastery, Hildegard is placed in an enclosed cell with Jutta von Sponheim, who records suggest may have only been about eight years older than Hildegard, but for purposes of In the Green, she is a fully mature and commanding woman.

Jutta is an anchoress, meaning a woman who has been physically sealed off from the world, living in her small cell as if already dead in order to devote her thoughts to the life beyond, subsisting on meager portions of food and water delivered through a window. She is to mentor Hildegard from a young child for the next thirty years, well into womanhood. Only after Jutta's death in 1136 does Hildegarde leave the cell, become engaged in the many branches of work, and begin to amass a following in the church.

The one-act musical, which premiered in 2019 in Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater, was wholly created by composer-actor-singer Grace McLean. McLean had the ingenious notion to portray Hildegarde in the cell as a broken person by having three actors each play one element of her former sensory experiences in the outside world. The three are: Eye, who has seen too much; Mouth, who explains that she has said too much and hungered too much; and Hand, whose sin has been to gather too much. Eye, Mouth and Hand speak and sing independently of one another, though at times their voices join, while at other times they respond back and forth.

Jutta promises to heal them of their brokenness through asceticism, patience, and hard labor–the labor being constant digging into the earth beneath their cell, without giving them a reason. The broken parts of Hildegard feel little progress toward becoming whole, but Jutta does not relent. She tells them she too was broken and has followed this course to make herself whole, but will not reveal what it was that caused her to break.

Eventually they dig deep enough to find another being, Shadow, who is the buried shadow of the pain that had broken Jutta. Through Shadow's confessions, Eye, Mouth and Hand learn the source of Jutta's brokenness and realize that Jutta made herself whole by burying her past, not but knitting it together. Shadow, Eye and Mouth then work through the trauma that led to their brokenness and finally begin to become whole once more.

McLean's score contains gorgeous music that uses recurring themes, wending themselves into complex madrigal melodies that hinge between soulful and mournful, with a quality that brings to mind Michael John LaChiusa's Marie Christine and Jeanine Tesori's Violet. For Jutta, McLean's songs are more forceful, closer to a blues-rock vein. She makes frequent use of loop recordings that capture snippets of Jutta's voice, repeating those in a loop so that Jutta sings accompanied by iterations of herself, creating a sensation of her being a large and omnipresent force in contrast to Hildegard's withdrawn brokenness.

The play has a great deal more singing than spoken text, but the dialogue that exists is much more colloquial and contemporary, as when the Marchioness calms the fears of Hildegard's mother about confining her to a cell by saying "Inside the cell, she'll be technically dead, but super comfortable." That easygoing way with dialogue makes it more accessible and makes the narrative more relatable.

As always at Theatre Elision, the caliber of the music is excellent, and their productions would be worth going to even if one kept eyes closed and merely listened. Christine Wade does wonderful work as vocal director, as evidenced by the results, and also sings–and acts, but especially sings–with a raging force as Jutta. Deidre Cochrane as Mouth, Abilene Olson as Hand, and Annie Schiferl as Eye all sing beautifully, whether solo or in harmony, and express the pain and eventual redemption Hildegard goes through. Emily Hensley gives an equally strong performance as Shadow.

Music director Harrison Wade and two fellow musicians perform the splendidly orchestrated, almost continuous score. Director and designer of the costumes and set, Lindsay Fitzgerald has created a feel for the environment of Hildegard's world using quite simple elements, and steers the show seamlessly on its journey.

As In the Green nears its end, Hildegard, now a thirty-eight-year-old woman (Abilene Olson), leaves the cell, taking on a new oblate whom she will guide under the light of the world. Without offering detail, we understand that Hildegard has taken on responsibilities in her Catholic community and is viewed as a leader. We know this from history–and from the clearly presented information provided in the theater program–but it feels rather rushed in the play, and in some ways In the Green might have been more impactful if it concluded with Hildegard leaving her cell.

At that point, what we have come to understand from Hildegard's journey is that to become whole, and to overcome whatever trauma may have left us broken, we must dig deeply and find a light within ourselves. Only then will we be ready to enter and fully absorb the light shining on us from above. Whether the 12th or the 21st century, this message gives us something to chew on.

In the Green runs through March 9, 2024, at Theatre Elision, Elision Playhouse, 6105 42nd Avenue North, Crystal MN. For information and tickets, please visit

Book, Music and Lyrics: Grace McLean; Director, Set and Costume Design: Lindsay Fitzgerald; Assistant Director and Movement: Madeline Wall; Music Director and Pianist: Harrison Wade; Vocal Director: Christine Wade; Sound Design: Andrea Johnson; Lighting Design and Stage Manager: Laina Grendle

Cast: Deidre Cochran (Mouth), Emily Hensley (Shadow), Abilene Olson (Hands), Annie Schiferl (Eyes), Nora Sonneborn (Proxima), Christine Wade (Jutta).