If you don’t believe in your people, that’s a sickness. But it can be remarkably hard to believe in your roots when they crack the ground of backwoods Appalachia in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. In a riveting new drama with the heavy overtones of a Greek tragedy, area playwright Susan McCully’s Kerrmoor receives its world premiere production as a part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Co-Produced by Strand Theatre and Interrobang Theatre Company and Directed by Eve Muson, this compelling and startling new work is an American mythos of epic proportions that will stir deep the emotions of blood ties and call into question the acceptance of your own familial roots and experience. Sharp, harrowing, and truly evocative, McCully’s work ranks among the finest featured in the festival this year.
The essence of the salt of the earth is captured first and foremost in Set Designer Gregg Schraven’s upright structures that dominate the set with their simplicity. The grainy etchings of the wooden aesthetic encloses upon the scene a sense of entrapment, a symbolic reflection of the show’s overall conflict. Augmenting this notion with Lighting Designer Adam Mendelson’s subdued rays of crepuscular blue and purple preserves the scene in its own frozen moment of time, capturing the epitome of the emotional essence for the evening of the ritual. Both Mendelson and Schraven ensnare the movement of time within their design work and this serves to compliment the structure of playwright Susan McCully’s epic Greek tragedy, keeping everything within a 24-hour time window.
Sound Designer Jeffrey Dorfman and Music Composer Linda Dusman shade the performance with a colorful aural palette that enhances the overall aesthetic experience of the performance. Dusman adds layers of subtle twang to signify location between scenic shifts while Dorfman captures the notion of nighttime with nuances in his sound work. The recorded chanting of voices that rises in haunting swells from an unseen village beyond the walls is a truly striking element that adds a chilling layer of realism to the show in moments when these recordings underscore the women present in the show chanting out the right of Kerrmoor.
McCully’s play is vivid and visceral, populated with potent moments of emotional catharsis that stack precariously atop one another until the drastic conclusion of the show is achieved. Her mastery of Appalachian patois infused flawlessly into the dialogue exchanges of these three women is a powerful tool utilized to perfection in the writing. Showcasing the simplicity of these characters’ backwoods mindsets through the use of the vernacular and limited vocabulary draws the audience deeply into the reality of their existence. McCully’s strongest hold on the twisted ideology of this insular community falls naturally in the dialogue she writes for Lorna’s character and juxtaposes brilliantly against the more open-minded rantings of Agatha.
Carefully crafting volumes of opinions and emotions into the character of Agatha, McCully demonstrates her prowess as a playwright and manages to articulate a great deal more in Agatha’s silences than the character could ever have achieved with words. This is one of the many exceptional tools of the trade hard at work in the construction of these dynamically stacked characters, each which comes with their own prepossessing beliefs and emotions, all of which shift dramatically as the work accelerates toward its dramatic conclusion.
Director Eve Muson settles into the work with a rigorous understanding of how to keep the dramatic action simmering just beneath the surface so as to deliver the fully weighted impact of the show’s conclusion with exacting precision when the moment arrives. Muson blocks the piece with ease, allowing for the women to exist naturally in the confines of the wooden enclosure and this realistic movement encourages a sense of real-time action, which serves to heighten the dramatic tension occurring throughout the performance.
The blind innocence of youth and cultural brainwashing is ingrained into the character of Kylie (Erin Hanratty.) Tempering this unwavering blind faith of backwoods culture, Hanratty delivers a striking dichotomy of her character’s confusion toward the end of the performance. Heavily choked with the severity and gravity of the situation as the reality of the evening sinks in, Hanratty makes this one of the most emotionally profound moments in the show. Delivering a haunting and yet beautiful voice, Hanratty sings “The Ballad of Mona Kerr” throughout the performance blending a sense of dutiful, albeit ignorant, pride and simplistic naiveté into her songbird voice; this is an even further telling mark of her understanding of the character and Kylie’s place in the epic.
Lorna (Katie Hileman) possesses a determined and stubborn sense of pride and responsibility when it comes to knowing her place in the grander scheme of things. Playing both ends of the scale, Hileman displays a range of emotions that teeter from ferociously impassioned to detrimentally terrified, all of which feel natural as they flow through her physicality and her vocal expressions of the dialogue. There is an intensity which seizes Hileman’s portrayal of Lorna when serious doubt infuses itself into the moment, and the juxtaposition of how she handles this scene against her raging spitfire approach of righteousness is something astonishing to behold. Playing exceptionally well against Susan McCully, who serves as the absent mother Agatha, Hileman drives tension-strung moments between the two characters to soaring heights of fascination, fully gripping the audience into the drama of their relationship.
McCully flourishes in the role of Agatha, fully transforming the gritty and hardened and bitter woman through the performance to something unrecognizable by the show’s end. The transition is remarkable and watching it occur as layers are stripped and peeled away is part of what makes the show so exceptional. Never faltering in her intentions, McCully drives the characters baser needs forward in a harsh but honest way, trading those fully charged energies for more subdued internalized ones as the dramatic course of the show alters at the pivotal moment slightly more than halfway through. Talented and fully embracing her spatial awareness on the stage, McCully engages in a headstrong battle of wit and wills with both Hanratty and Hileman throughout; the three performers owning every moment of their onstage existence with veracity and sensationally strung emotional vulnerability.
Adding to the rich variety of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, Kerrmoor is a colossal experience that will be difficult to digest in just one sitting and a second viewing is highly recommended to fully appreciate all of the nuance crafted into the production from all ends of the performance and production scale.
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission
Kerrmoor plays through November 15, 2015 as a part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as a Co-Production with Strand Theatre and Interrobang Theatre Company at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church— 811 Cathedral Street in Baltimore, MD. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance online.
To read the interview with playwright Susan McCully click here.