By Corbin Went; Directed by Emma Rosa Went
Co-Produced by The Renovationists, Parity Productions, and The Tank
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 5.25.18
The Tank, 312 West 36th Street
by Ran Xia on 5.18.18
Karen Eilbacher and Jackie Abbott in Old Names for Wildflowers. Photo by Corbin Went.
BOTTOM LINE: Witchcraft carries a deeper meaning in this thought-provoking, timeless tale that traces the lineage of condemned women who reclaim their agency.
“Men must die in war… there’s no order to it,” says Elizabeth (Alexandra Gonzalez) in Corbin Went's new play Old Names for Wildflowers. Elizabeth is a Civil War widow and the matriarch of the Aubert women; raising four daughters, she’s as strong as they come. Each daughter has her own set of distinct attributes: the eldest, Melandre (Zoe Goslin), is plain, devout and reserved; Angele (Montana Lampert Hoover), the youngest, takes her rightful role as the idealist of the bunch with all her spirit, which Hoover portrays with dexterity a childlike charm. And the two middle children—Couer (Karen Eilbacher) the steadfast and practical, and Zoe (Jackie Abbot), sharp with a hint of mysteriousness—seem to share, or perhaps deny, a bond deeper than sisterhood. The uncontrived chemistry between Eilbacher and Abbott makes them an enthralling duo.
Our story begins at the edge of the woods, and meanders across the hinterland of change. Scenic designer Dan Daly transforms twine and fabrics into a forest that seems to simultaneously shrivel and expand on its own, while Chris D’Angelo‘s lighting sets the skeletal trees aglow, and allows shadows to do their tricks, so that the illuminated woods are cloaked in a glamour of magic—where time doesn’t pass and spirits linger. The front porch of a simple cabin becomes the epicenter of something sinister—but not in the way you might expect.
The Auberts live a simple life by the woods: the women chop their firewood, feed their chickens, cook, or sometimes practice medicine with everything the plants have to offer. And then there’s the fox (Monica Lerch, who pantomimes the allure of this proxy of the unknown), a tantalizing creature, poking his head out between brambles, sauntering in and out of the story, interrupting the women’s simple life like a metaphor. Things take a turn for the more peculiar when a chicken gets snatched out of the locked coop, its still-beating heart left behind like a souvenir of a perfect crime. The fox is to blame, because it’s easy to blame someone who cannot voice a defense. There is blood. The boys are spooked. The women preserve their right to sneer in the face of ignorance, an act of disobedience that never goes unpunished.
Like the chickens in their coop, the women in Old Names for Wildflowers are caged creatures, complex individuals who are deeply, tragically affected by what is expected of them. As mothers, daughters, wives, and homemakers, they are trapped in the roles the world has cast them to play, forced to live out the fairy tale they’re meant to break free from, like every doomed princess who never needed a knight in shining armor. But as Couer says about Melandre, “plans and hopes are different things.” Goslin gives a nuanced and captivating portrayal of this repressed yet powerful woman, a hibernating volcano waiting to erupt. And when it does, you know it’s going to shock you to the core.
The men in the play, on the other hand, are sleazy bastards products of a patriarchal society that forgives, nay, rewards their duplicity as long as there are masks of morality to spare. And how better to create a façade of righteousness than religion? We peek into the moonlit rendezvous of Angele and Maurice (Patrick Harvey), son of Reverend Alexis (Tom Giordano). When Maurice denies the affair in the face of responsibility, an enraged Angele proves their relationship by giving Maurice a nosebleed by reciting a rhyme while holding a stalk of yarrow to her nose. Except this of course proves the women’s allegiance to the devil, and the men are all too willing to turn on their oldest, apparently once dearest, friends.
Witchcraft has always been a weapon used by the patriarchy. And women have been using knowledge to defend themselves since the beginning of time. Often, fear calls it witchcraft. And sometimes, even women themselves start to confuse a thirst for knowledge for sin—it’s tragic really, ever since Eve apologized for eating that apple. So when a bookseller (Finn Kilgore, who carries out the subtle shift from a capricious presence to being borderline menacing within moments during this magnetizing exchange), appears at the sisters’ doorstep with a satchel full of old volumes, the women recoil and reject, because that’s what deemed appropriate—to stay away from the devil’s book. But perhaps "devil" is only a name we call the carriers of forbidden knowledge, censored by people who are afraid what might happen when women are no longer kept in the dark.
Corbin Went elegantly plots out a saga across generations of women who couldn’t escape their inherited trauma, yet try their very best to reclaim agency. Sometimes a play rips open a scab that never fully healed to reveal the raw, still-throbbing wound beneath. Old Names for Wildflowers does just this, and with the kind of tenderness that makes you believe in the possibilities of flowers bursting out of wreckage. I see the making of a great play. Some of the isolated slice-of-life scenes could be trimmed for clarity, but the play makes up for it with twists and turns that recall the intricacy of Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle—and digs into themes just as heavy that perhaps will make you go for a Bourbon afterwards. And one small critique of director Emma Rosa Went's casting: while Gonzalez's Elizabeth is a formidable presence, as is Giordano, who brings out the ridiculousness and vulnerability of the stern preacherman, casting older actors might allow for more natural dynamics between these parents and their children.
At the end of act one, the townsfolk congregate before the Aubert cabin carrying stones, bringing the play to a violent crescendo as, stone by stone, the world condemns the women to the fringe of society, putting them into a mental box marked “wicked.” But if magic is simply the power of making choices in times of uncertainly, it’s no wonder that women with agency are called witches. The Aubert women seem to gradually embrace their reputations, perhaps in defiance. But are they witches? Are they really? Perhaps that shouldn’t have been the question after all.
(Old Names For Wildflowers plays at The Tank, 312 West 36th Street, through May 25, 2018. The running time is 2 hours 25 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 7, and Wednesday May 23 at 8. Tickets are $25 ($35 preferred seating) and are available at thetanknyc.org.)
Old Names for Wildflowers is by Corbin Went. Directed by Emma Rosa Went. Movement by Monica Lerch. Scenic Design by Dan Daly. Sound Design by Corbin Went. Costume Design by Sara Fellini. Lighting Design by Christopher D'Angelo. Stage Manager is Rafaella Rossi.
The cast is Jackie Abbot, Karen Eilbacher, Tom Giordano, Alexandra Gonzalez, Zoe Goslin, Patrick Harvey, Montana Lampert Hoover, Finn Kilgore, Monica Lerch, and Patrick McCann.