Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review: More Than Just a History Play

There are moments in history that seem to go unnoticed or wash away over time. The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 was deadly. In Aleks Merilo’s The Widow of Tom’s Hill, Merilo uses the history as a backdrop for a play about two young people and the dangers of getting too close when lives are on the line.
Presented at 59e59, The Widow of Tom’s Hill follows a young woman named Aideen, the small Pacific town’s representative, who fosters a bond with a young Navy sailor, the voice box to warn Aideen and Tom’s Hill of the necessary quarantine due to the epidemic. Despite the serenity of the crashing waves, the outlook on the shores of Tom's Hill is bleak. As the sickness begins to overrun the coast, Aideen and the Sailor develop a relationship that goes from platonic to something more, but how much truth is found in their words is the real test. Merilo’s story is fascinating. The historic backdrop that Merilo uses is captivating on its own, but what sets The Widow of Tom’s Hill apart are the characters that Merilo crafts. Aideen and the Sailor are young people thrust into a situation no one their age should be forced to take part in. Yet the way they handle themselves proves their resiliency. When it comes to the romantic component of the play, Merilo’s star-crossed lover plot is only a small element of their dynamic. It fulfills the romance quota that all stories seem to desire. But the way Merilo utilizes it is from a character necessity. Aideen has calculated the Sailor and knew that she could use herself as a ploy to win him. Between playing with his heart and capably bringing the disease to the ship, Aideen is a brilliant yet deceitful woman. And despite that, you can’t help but want her to succeed. And though his emotions are exposed and he is easily doped, you equally want the Sailor to succeed in his own right. The language that Merilo writes in is quite poetic. The text is filled with metaphor after metaphor that creates a heightened dialogue, yet it works for this piece.
photo by Carol Rosegg
To care about both characters proportionately is a testament to Merilo, director Rachel Black Spaulding and the two exceptional actors. Lucy Lavely and Derek Grabner as Aideen and the Sailor have incredible chemistry on stage. Lavely has immense force. The determination and fervor Lavely gave to Aideen was lovely to watch. There was true grit in her voice that filled the room. Playing opposite her, Derek Grabner was a star. Despite being the bearer of constant bad news, Grabner’s Sailor was hopelessly optimistic, offering light to the darkness. The Sailor may not have been the dominating force of the duo yet Grabner was more than Aideen’s plaything. Watching the Sailor and Grabner grow within the eighty minute play was something mesmerizing.
Rachel Black Spaulding had many elements to fight in The Widow of Tom’s Hill. Between a dramatic two-hander, a theater in the round set up, and a line literally dividing her actors, Spaulding managed to do the unthinkable. Spaulding created a world that was stimulating and captivating. Scenic designer Miguel Urbino’s dock was visually beautiful but in the round could have caused Spaulding a giant headache, yet Spaulding figured out a way to make each characters’ side much larger than it was. Spaulding’s staging was static yet mobile. Spaulding used angles to her advantage. With Aideen being the only one with height on their respective side, her moments on the upper level of the dock was deliberate. With the sound of Jordan Pankin’s waves crashing against the sand, the ambiance was less than tranquil in this world. And it was a wonderful juxtaposition. With the addition of the soundtrack from T.O. Sterrett, the musical transitions were more than just filler.
The Widow of Tom’s Hill may not be a show on your radar but it should be. Aleks Merilo’s script goes beyond the surface of a history play. It’s rich in imagery with a brilliant study of character and mortality.