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Review: The Welkin shows an 18th century women’s jury

Lucy Kirkwood’s drama celebrates its US debut at the Atlantic Theater Company.

Sandra Oh (above, center) leads the cast of Lucy Kirkwood’s The WelkinDirected by Sarah Benson, at the Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Aaron R. Foster)

Is democracy compatible with science? Most of us still vividly remember the Covid pandemic, when public policy was largely entrusted to unelected health officials. Those who question their proclamations risk denying the scienceIronically, the richest man in the world, a tech billionaire, positions himself in stark contrast to this technocracy, tweeting: “Vox People, Vox God“ – a pithy Latin phrase that cannot erase a fundamental truth: facts are not established by a majority decision.

The 12 women appointed to Lucy Kirkwood’s “Jury of Matrons” The Welkin (currently premiering in America at the Atlantic Theater Company) is intended to clarify a very specific fact: Is convicted murderer Sally Poppy (a disturbingly confident Haley Wong) pregnant? A simple majority is not enough. Their verdict must be unanimous and will decide whether Sally lives or dies. It is 12 angry men for the post-Dobbs Era, a look back at the justice system in England in 1759, which depressingly sheds light on much about law and democracy in 2024.

Sandra Oh leads the cast in an impressive performance as Elizabeth Luke, a longtime midwife who is convinced Sally is telling the truth about her pregnancy. She also doesn’t believe Sally killed the victim, Alice Wax, the daughter of the town’s richest family. She must overcome the righteous anger of Emma Jenkins (an intimidating Nadine Malouf) and the aristocratic condescension of Charlotte Cary (Mary McCann, doing her best Mrs. Crawley), an out-of-town widow of a colonel who works as a foreman. They want to see Sally hang, as does the growing mob outside the courthouse (effectively conveyed by Palmer Hefferan’s disturbing sound design). Why would any of them risk their reputations and personal safety for Sally?

New York music photographer
Dale Soules, Emily Cass McDonnell, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Tilly Botsford, Susannah Perkins, Haley Wong, Paige Gilbert, Simone Recasner and Nadine Malouf star in Lucy Kirkwood’s The WelkinDirected by Sarah Benson, at the Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Aaron R. Foster)

Kirkwood offers a keen and sobering insight into the relationship between justice and power – only those who possess the latter can hope to come anywhere close to the former. The clear depiction of the pervasive sexual violence in this world tells this story with breathtaking brutality.

Kirkwood’s thematic precision is only slightly compromised by her sloppy plot development, which includes twists that wouldn’t be out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. She keeps us hooked for the entire two-and-a-half hours, if only because we’re trying to figure out who everyone really is and what they want.

Director Sarah Benson does a great job of directing the audience in a play that rarely has fewer than 13 people on stage. But she is less successful at placing the cast in the same world, with dialects that span the entire English-speaking world, some of which are strikingly modern (I often found myself thinking of Michelle Wolf’s piece “Millennials in History”). It’s hard to believe that this is a conscious choice rather than simply the lack of one.

Benson also fails to pull off the more imaginative moments of this not entirely realistic piece – like when the entire cast breaks into an a cappella version of the Bangles’ “Manic Monday” and a woman in modern dress comes onstage to spray paint Pledge on the mantelpiece. I’m still not quite sure what this means. My best guess is that it’s meant to express the continuity of women’s experiences across the centuries. No matter the era, it’s just another crazy MondayAt this point the script threatens to turn into an 18th Century Cathy comic.

Ann Harada plays Judith Brewer, Simone Recasner plays Peg Carter and Sandra Oh plays Lizzy Luke in Lucy Kirkwood’s The WelkinDirected by Sarah Benson, at the Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Aaron R. Foster)

Fortunately, that never quite happens, as several actors give committed performances. Dale Soules is particularly convincing as Sarah Smith, an energetic older woman who has given birth to 21 children. Ann Harada provides necessary and timely comic relief as Judith Brewer. Hannah Cabell delivers a memorable performance as the mute woman who finally speaks to deliver the play’s most dramatic (and dramaturgically redundant) monologue.

The set supports their character work. Kaye Voyce’s costumes immediately convey a sense of class for the 12 women, with the widow Cary wearing her fashionable hat like a crown. The set (by dots) creates a palpably claustrophobic seclusion chamber, magnificently lit by Stacey Derosier. We witness the day disappearing as the light coming through a single window slowly evaporates and the tension mounts: if these women don’t make a quick judgment, they’ll have to walk home in the dark past the mob.

Kirkwood has cleverly set her story in a time when the wealthier classes were already abandoning midwives like Mrs Luke in favour of the cutting edge of Enlightenment science, embodied by a male doctor who is called upon to speak his own mind. Danny Wolohan plays the role with a perfectly affable approach to patients that must feel like a lemon in the wound for Mrs Luke, who doesn’t need a man to tell her if a woman is pregnant. “The whole animal economy of a woman makes reason and intellect a struggle,” he says, earnestly and ever so gently endorsing the casual sexism of his time. But he is the doctor, and who are we to question him? the science?

Although it is not a perfectly crafted legal drama, The Welkin is a timely reminder that we are all subject to the context in which we live. No one inhabits a hermetically sealed tower of reason – at least no one under heaven. Democracy is a small, imperfect recognition of this.

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