“I could only have imagined this happening, if I was lucky, when I’m in my 70s” explains the 43-year-old playwright Lucy Thurber of the five productions in the Hill Town Plays series currently being presented by the adventurous Rattlestick Playwrights Theater Company. While a few New York Theatre companies specialize in highlighting the work of a single playwright (most notably Signature Theatre’s selection of a resident playwright each season), staging five plays is almost unheard of and offering them simultaneously rather than over the course of a season or two is truly unique. Add to that the collaboration with four different theatres and their respective artistic directors and one comes to fully appreciate the achievement of Rattlestick and its artistic director, David Van Asselt.
All of this theatrical coordination and artistic energy would come to naught if Ms. Thurber’s works were not so engagingly interconnected and full of disturbing and deeply felt perceptions about the impact of environment on the individual. Thurber’s accomplishments are even more impressive because her plays are set in a world that is virtually unknown to her urban theatre audiences: poor, socially disconnected, economically oppressed, small-town “country people” living in the outer reaches of Massachusetts.
The five plays follow a female character from an abusive and alienating childhood in “Hill Town” to her eventual outward success as a writer and college professor unable to escape the complex relationships and the horrors of her past. While only the first and last play –“Scarcity” and “Stay” — have characters with the same names and specific history, Thurber asserts that all of the plays are “investigating a different aspect of the girl and the world.” In “Scarcity” we meet a bright young child, Rachel, who skillfully manages to navigate a constantly threatening environment with an unemployed alcoholic father prone to ruthlessly abusing his son Billy, her brother, for no reason, and a mother who is incapable of providing the security and affirmation that developing children need and crave. The second play, “Ashville,” finds the girl grappling with her teenage years in which she is torn between fulfilling the expectations of a “country girl”– marrying a “good man” who can support and possess her – and an awareness of the world beyond Hill Town, unknown to her except through books and an inner unrest that she feels with the limitations of her surroundings.
In “Where We’re Born,” the girl, who is becoming a woman, returns to her hometown during semester-break from college. Again, she is struggling to reconcile her past with her future as she tries to reconnect with the one person she feel she knows and can trust, a male cousin who embodies everything good and bad about her “homeland.” In the process, she begins to deal with her lesbian identity in an awkward but surprisingly satisfying tryst with her cousin’s woman. By the time we meet her in “Killers and Other Family,” she has escaped Hill Town (or at least thinks she has escaped) and is building a life as a doctoral candidate in New York City with her straight-laced female lover. But the past cannot be abandoned and, when her brother and her former boyfriend, a.k.a. possessor, arrive, her new world is shattered by her past and words give way to violence.
Thurber’s final play in the series, “Stay,” restores the names and personal histories of the characters in the first play. Rachel is now a successful author and faculty member at an elite New England liberal arts college and Billy has become an up-and-coming lawyer. But neither can really escape their heritage – Billy has been fired from a law firm because he had an ill-advised affair with the boss’s daughter. Rachel has created an impenetrable bubble around her inner-self that she believes will protect her from the uncontrollable impulses that have been engrained in her by her sordid development. As a child, Rachel had unusual powers of prediction as a tarot card reader and now she finds herself derailed by an attractive female student named Julia who seems to have magical powers. Thurber abandons the ultra-realistic style of the earlier plays with an alter-ego character that helps Rachel maintain her balance by constantly reminding her how she should respond to her circumstances to avoid falling into the trap of her past.
While the individual plays vary in quality, taken as a whole, this series presents a probing and disturbing examination of the power of the past over the present. No matter how hard these characters try to escape their formative years, they are prisoners of their past. “Scarcity” is a beautifully written and totally engaging portrait of Rachel and Billy’s childhood home life. This play actually focuses on Billy, who has tested into an educational program for gifted teenagers in the backwoods of Massachusetts. Billy is on a tight rope, trying to contain his drunken and abusive father and protecting his seemingly helpless mother while providing his young sister some semblance of security. But Billy knows that if he does not escape this environment, he will become a part of it. He uses a “do good” teacher in his special education program to engineer his admission with a scholarship into an elite residential academy. In spite of Billy’s promises to protect her, Rachel is left to fend for herself.
“There’s a lot in these plays about being invisible,” Thurber says of her work, “locations that are sort of abandoned by and invisible to the greater America.” “Scarcity” makes that part of America visible. This is not a critique or docudrama of what we pejoratively refer to as “trailer trash.” It is a moving explication of what growing up in America’s “other country” is like. “Being raised in those environments as a child or a young adult,” Thurber explains, “you are essentially triply invisible – because the people who are raising you are struggling so hard to actually maintain the feeling that they exist. So they can’t recognize that they might not be helping their children feel like they exist.”
“Ashville” is probably the least satisfying play in the series, although it provides a crucial link in the story of Rachel. In fact, while each of the other plays have been produced previously, giving Thurber the opportunity to revise and focus each work, this is the first production of “Ashville.” Set in a rural college town, Rachel (now Celia), is struggling with the usual insecurities, self-identity issues, and the tension between the need to be accepted and the desire to break out of the mold that is frequently manifested in the later teen years. But while the psychology is familiar territory for Thurber’s audience, the environment is not. Now the father figure is gone and Celia (Rachel) has only a drunken, domineering, and sexually loose mother to “look up to.” At age 16, she is attached to a “good boy” with a “good job” in the construction industry who wants to marry her – more accurately to his culture, he wants to possess her. The men in Thurber’s country-world possess their women. They order their women: “Give me a beer;” “Come here and kiss me;” “Come to bed with me.” For Thurber this is not a cry for women’s liberation; it is simply a portrayal of a reality. Later, in “Killers and Other Family” we will see the power this conditioning exerts even when a woman appears to have escaped this environment and its sexuality.
Celia is clearly uncomfortable with her circumstances but she also does not yet see a way out. “One of the cruelest things about growing up smart and poor, about being in transition and knowing it, is hope,” says Thurber, “the hope that one will not be like one’s friends and family, the knowledge that there is something else just past the horizon that nobody seems to understand or care about.” When Jake, her “good boyfriend,” proposes to the 16-year-old Celia, he does not allow her to answer. She is, after all, his. Her mother is ecstatic; Jake is a perfect match in her limited world view. Celia retreats into her books. She experiments with drugs and casual sex with a drug dealer. Unlike each of the other plays in the cycle, the action of this play seems to wander, never clearly focusing on the playwright’s point of view on this stage of her character’s development. In some ways, this wandering reflects the state of mind of many 16-year-olds. The play ends with an almost Beckett-like declaration: “I know it’s out there, I’m going” and the lights dim.
The title of the next play clearly demonstrates that the central character has not gone very far. “Where We’re Born” finds Lily (a.k.a. Rachel/Celia) on a college break back visiting where she was born. She has returned to the world of beer and pot and men retreating to Charlie’s Bar for a game of pool. Lily is perceived as self-absorbed as she labors to distinguish herself from her environment and reconcile her past with her future. Her “experiment” with a lesbian relationship only alienates her further from her country identity. For the first time, she experiences a sexual relationship that feels liberating, that makes her whole. The object of her affection, Franky, the soon-to-be wife of her bosom-buddy cousin Tony, knows their connection must remain a secret; it cannot be open in this environment. Franky pleads with Lily to make this “just between us girls,” but Lily knows she must be in control of her environment and not the subject of it, so she reveals the truth to her cousin.
If this cycle of plays is viewed as a single continuing drama (which it is), then “Killer and Other Family” is the dramatic climax where all of the elements of the previous plays collide and erupt into unbridled violence resulting in a sort of classic catharsis. Rachel (now Elizabeth) has settled into a stable life, completing her Ph.D. in social sciences and living happily in a New York apartment with Claire, her rather straight-laced lover who clearly comes from a very different background. Her would-be idyllic world is shattered when her brother, Jeff (a.k.a. Billy), and his best friend, Danny, come for a visit. Danny used to “possess” Elizabeth back home. Liz has begged Jeff to keep Danny away from her, but a horrific murder committed by Danny some time ago and witnessed by Danny and Elizabeth has taken a turn that forced the two men to run away from home. They have come to Liz for money.
What follows is a sort of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” without the words. By that, I do not mean that Thurber’s writing is any less pointed and effective, but that real violence replaces the violence of words in a slugfest between visitors and hosts. Danny and Elizabeth share an uncontrollable animal attraction; he violently dominates; she submits. It’s not rational and Liz cannot control it. They have violent sex, only to be discovered by Claire.
Lest Rachel’s confused sexuality appears to be a violation of urban political correctness (i.e., women becoming lesbians to escape the brutality of men), it is important to recognize that Thurber’s plays are not an exploration of lesbian attraction nor feminist theory – she is not trying to analyze the source of lesbian love nor is she suggesting that women turn to women as a rejection of the unacceptable male-female norms of her environment, but that is definitely in the mix. The sex and violence in “Killers” are a reemergence of the animal instincts that motivate and govern the people in Rachel’s and Billy’s past. As they try to escape that past, they learn how difficult it is for them not to become what they cannot escape from being. When the violence turns onto Claire, Liz is forced to choose between Jeff and Danny versus Claire. Wisely, she chooses Claire and the play ends, but the tragic consequences only become apparent in the final play.
“Stay” brings Rachel and Billy back together, both trying to protect themselves from their pasts. Rachel has successfully created her much desired outer life – success as a writer and a good teaching position. Billy is a lawyer on the way up the partnership ladder. But neither can accept their inner life. Rachel has an alter-ego — made into an actual character that watches over her throughout the play — that tells her how to respond to every challenge: Keep calm. Say this. Don’t go there. Rachel cannot let her inner-self govern her actions.Billy seeks refuge with Rachel. Unlike Rachel, he has allowed that inner-self to lead him into a clumsy sexual relationship with his law firm’s chief partner’s young daughter that is also laced with violence. Even though he knows he allowed the animal instinct from his past to overtake his careful judgment as “a good lawyer,” he cannot help focusing on how good he felt in that ill-advised fling. Similarly, Rachel instantly recognizes the danger that Julia, her aggressive female student, presents to her,but she cannot resist succumbing to her. “I felt safe,” she says.
“Stay” is somewhat muddled. As noted above, Thurber breaks from the absolute realism of the previous plays by including a very real alter-ego for Rachel. It is further obfuscated with a suggestion that magical powers may be at work as Rachel falls under the spell of Julia. “Magical elements are essential [to my work],” says Thurber; “there is a need for magic, because the world [of poverty] is so stark. It’s everywhere, and it’s sort of a hill, family witchcraft. It’s not ‘new age Wicccan.’ It’s like, ‘you people have been doing this shit for a while.’ The more educated you become, the less you need that divine connection. When you’re poor, the forces pushing your life around are so tremendous, that you need to anthropomorphize them in a way.”
Thurber even goes so far as to include a gratuitous character into the play to verify Julia’s magical powers. Tommy is a guitar-playing young student from a “good background” who has become destructively passionate for Julia and testifies to her magical powers. But aside from the seemingly innocent, if dead-on, predictions that the very young Rachel made with her tarot cards in the first play, magic has not been part of these characters existence until this final play. While I completely agree with Thurber’s assertion that a “divine connection” provides a buffer against the stark realities of Rachel’s and Billy’s life in the backwoods, there is no development of this theme in the other plays. And given the style of this last play, we have to accept the recognition of a “magical presence” as an essential part of the five-plays’ dénouement.
Perhaps it is the clarity and strength with which Thurber presents the other themes in these plays that make this resolution less satisfying. But taken-as-a-whole, the five plays are a truly remarkable portrait of the interaction of the past and present, the inability of all of us to escape our past, and the struggles we experience trying to create and own an identity that provides us security and sustenance. The five productions are uniformly well acted and directed and seeing each of them in their intended sequence gives the audience a rare and unique experience in the theatre. Rattlestick intends to make this type of marathon an annual festival. It’s off to an impressive start!
 “Village Rallies Round a Playwright’s Tale” by Stuart Miller, The New York Times, August 9, 2013.