Reviews

Review: The Welkin Depicts an 18th Century Jury of Women

Lucy Kirkwood’s drama makes its US debut with Atlantic Theater Company.

Sandra Oh (top, center) leads the cast of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, directed by Sarah Benson, at Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

Is democracy compatible with science? Most of us vividly recall the Covid pandemic, when public policy was largely entrusted to unelected public health officials. Question their proclamations and you risk denying the science. Positioning himself in stark opposition to such technocracy is, ironically, the world’s richest man, a tech billionaire who tweets, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” — a pithy Latin phrase that cannot erase a fundamental truth: Facts are not determined by a majority vote.

The 12 women empaneled onto a “jury of matrons” in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin (now making its American premiere at Atlantic Theater Company) are meant to ascertain one very concrete fact: Is convicted murderer Sally Poppy (an unnervingly confident Haley Wong) pregnant? A simple majority won’t do. Their finding must be unanimous, and it will determine whether Sally lives or dies. It’s 12 Angry Men for the post-Dobbs era, a look back at justice in 1759 England that depressingly illuminates much about the law and democracy in 2024.

Sandra Oh leads the cast in a commanding performance as Elizabeth Luke, a longtime midwife who is convinced Sally is telling the truth about being pregnant. She also doesn’t believe that Sally killed the victim, Alice Wax, daughter of the richest family in town. She’ll have to overcome the righteous fury of Emma Jenkins (an intimidating Nadine Malouf) and the patrician condescension of Charlotte Cary (Mary McCann doing her best Mrs. Crawley), a colonel’s widow from out of town who is serving as forewoman. They want to see Sally hang, as does the growing mob outside the courthouse (effectively conveyed through Palmer Hefferan’s disturbing sound design). Why should any of them put their reputations and personal safety on the line for Sally?

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Dale Soules, Emily Cass McDonnell, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Tilly Botsford, Susannah Perkins, Haley Wong, Paige Gilbert, Simone Recasner, and Nadine Malouf star in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, directed by Sarah Benson, at Atlantic Theater Comapny.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

Kirkwood offers shrewd and sobering insight into the relationship between justice and power — only those possessing the latter can ever hope to approach anything near the former. The clear-eyed presentation of ubiquitous sexual violence in this world tells that story with breathtaking brutality.

Kirkwood’s thematic precision is only slightly undermined by her potboiler development of the plot, which features twists that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. It keeps us engaged throughout the two-hour, 30-minute runtime, if only because we’re trying to figure out who everyone really is and what they want.

Director Sarah Benson does a fine job directing the traffic in a play in which there are rarely fewer than 13 bodies onstage. But she is less successful getting the cast to inhabit the same world, with dialects that span the Anglosphere, some of them strikingly modern (I was frequently reminded of Michelle Wolf’s “Millennials in history” bit). It’s hard to believe this is a deliberate choice rather than the absence of one.

Benson also fails to sell the more fanciful moments of this not-quite-realistic play — like when the entire cast breaks into an a cappella rendition of “Manic Monday” by the Bangles and a woman in modern dress walks onstage to spray Pledge on the mantelpiece. I’m still not quite sure what it means. My best guess is it’s meant to express the continuity of women’s experiences across the centuries. No matter the era, it’s just another manic Monday. It’s at this point the script threatens to descend into an 18th century Cathy comic.

Ann Harada plays Judith Brewer, Simone Recasner plays Peg Carter, and Sandra Oh plays Lizzy Luke in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, directed by Sarah Benson, at Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

Thankfully, it never quite does due to committed performances from several members of the cast. Dale Soules is particularly convincing as Sarah Smith, a vigorous elderly woman who has borne 21 children. Ann Harada gives needed and period-appropriate comic relief as Judith Brewer. Hannah Cabell gives a memorable performance as a mute woman who finally speaks to deliver the most dramatic (and dramaturgically superfluous) monologue of the play.

The design supports their character work. Kaye Voyce’s costumes convey an immediate sense of class for the 12 women, with the widow Cary wearing her fashionable hat like a crown. The scenic design (by dots) creates a palpably claustrophobic sequestration chamber, gorgeously lit by Stacey Derosier. We witness the daytime disappear as the light streaming through a single window slowly evaporates, raising the stakes: If these women don’t produce a verdict quickly, they’ll have to walk home, past the mob, in the dark.

Kirkwood has cleverly set her story in a time when the wealthier classes were already abandoning midwives like Mrs. Luke for the cutting edge of Enlightenment science, as embodied by a male doctor who is summoned to register his own opinion. Danny Wolohan plays this role with a perfectly affable bedside manner that must feel like lemon in the wound to Mrs. Luke, who doesn’t need a man to tell her if a woman is pregnant. “The whole animal economy of a woman makes reason and intellect a struggle,” he earnestly, ever-so-gently espouses the casual sexism of his day. But he’s the doctor, and who are we to question the science?

While not a perfectly crafted legal drama, The Welkin is a timely reminder that we’re all subject to the context in which we live. No one inhabits a hermetically sealed tower of reason — none under heaven, at least. Democracy is a small, imperfect recognition of that.

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The Welkin

Closed: July 7, 2024