By D. A. Blackburn
Last season, the folks at the Williamston Theatre came up with a unique prospect. They decided to depict life in the Midwest on their stage, and to do so, they’d need to solicit stories from real people living throughout the region. After securing a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, they distributed surveys that led to the creation of a wholly original three-season series, “Voices From The Midwest.”
The first installment of the series, “Maidens, Mothers and Crones,” premiered Friday, May 16, proving the influence that John (or Jane) Q. Public can wield on the stage. The work, which was written by Annie Martin and Suzi Regan, is a series of vignettes, heavily laden with input from the company’s Midwest survey, and with additional insights from the cast and production staff. In total, more than 42 women contributed stories and anecdotes to the work, giving it a diverse, yet universal perspective.
The underlying theme of “Maidens, Mothers and Crones” is the ubiquitous experience of being a woman raised in the Midwestern United States. Curiously, there seems little more than passing reference to geography in the work, and ultimately, it strikes a chord more about an all-inclusive female experience than any specific locale. Occasionally, references are made to Detroit, or Ohio, or some other Midwestern location, but they never serve to pin the work in any one place. And, as the term “Midwest” can be a bit difficult to understand in concrete terms, the show’s first scene even finds performers debating what area actually constitutes the region.
This failure to firmly locate the action does not prove a detriment to the work, as the material can, at times, be so poignant that it forces us to forget the creators’ intent and revel in the sheer beauty of language and ideal. At times, the dialogue is so good, and so pure, that it feels less a theatrical experience than a conversation with a group of wise and thoughtful women.
Regan has composed original music for the work, and though it can be less than substantive, lyrically, it is pleasant and executed extremely well by guitarist/vocalist Deborah Solo, with backing from the rest of the ensemble.
The vocal talents of the performers are very evident, and the cast of five is able to give the work well-balanced and melodic harmonies at every turn. The cast is, in all respects, a delight. They are well suited to their roles, in appearance, and all give stirring performances. All are very invested in the work, and it shows. At times, it’s difficult to tell where their performances end and their emotions begin. In truth, in this work, it’s probably a wide gray area.
Vignette themes range, in an almost cliche feel, from the trials of youth, adolescence and menstruation to motherhood, physical aging and menopause. Familial issues are laced throughout, and though the work seems a bit formulaic, the script is unabashedly genuine, making such a cadence forgivable. Scenes about surviving cancer and the bonds of fathers and daughters are particularly heart wrenching, while those about speed dating and Yoga’s impact on sex provide enough comic relief to warm a soul through the work’s most painfully honest moments.
The only true misstep in the “Maidens, Mothers and Crones” is in a strange play-within-a-play motif at work’s outset. It seems poorly conceived, and makes little sense within the broader context of the work. At first appearance, it could easily be mistaken for shoddy tech work, but then as the scene evolves, the audience realizes the writers’ intent. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t work to any logical effect, and failing to appear within the production again, its purpose is never clarified.
From a genuinely technical standpoint, “Maidens, Mothers and Crones” has been well nurtured. Lighting by Daniel C. Walker is simple, but very effective, as it moves the work from scene to scene tastefully, highlighting the action of the moment. Sets, also designed by Walker, are tasteful and attractive, and feature a flowing brook built directly into the show’s deck. Where the work fails to evoke a truly Midwestern feel, Walker’s Northern woods designs are a perfect fit to the show’s geography.
Sound design is virtually nonexistent, as all of the work’s music comes directly from Solo’s acoustic guitar, a harmonica, some percussive instruments and the cast’s voices, but this proves refreshing for its simplicity. Instrumental levels never overwhelm the cast, as would easily be possible within the tight confines of Williamston’s theater, and this is much to the credit of Solo’s nuance as a guitarist.
Though the work does fall victim to some simple faults, “Maidens, Mothers and Crones” succeeds far more than it fails. The honesty of the material provides both some tremendous humor, and a number of firm tugs at the heartstrings. Martin and Regan (the latter also serves as director) have created a striking work with a true relevance for women all over our nation, and also for the men in their lives.
‘Maidens, Mothers and Crones’
Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam Rd., Williamston. Thu.-Sun., through June 1. Tickets: $18-$24. For information: 517-655-7469 or http://www.williamstontheatre.org.