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The Welkin

A powerful play about women’s issues set in England in 1759. You may never think about women’s bodies the same way again.

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Sandra Oh (center) and around table: Mary McCann, Glenn Fitzgerald, Ann Harada, Dale Soules, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Simone Recasner, Nadine Malouf, Susannah Perkins, Emily Cass McDonnell and Paige Gilbert in a scene from Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Welkin” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

When we talk about women having control over their bodies today, we are usually discussing issues of abortion. Most of us know little of what it used to be like for women in previous centuries. The Welkin by Lucy Kirkwood (author of Broadway play The Children, 2017) is a powerful play about women’s issues set in England in 1759. As directed by Sarah Benson, while its first act is mainly to introduce the many characters and the situation, the second act is both dramatic and shocking. You may never think about women’s bodies the same way again.

It is the first year that Haley’s comet has been predicted. Sally Poppy, trapped in a loveless marriage at age 21, has committed a murder with her lover of a child from a rich family she has worked for. She has been sentenced to death by hanging and then to be anatomized (you really don’t want to know). However, she has declared she is with child. If it is true, she will be deported to America after the child is born. But is it true? Twelve local matrons have convened in an unheated upper room of the courthouse to decide on the truth of her statement, from women who know her to be a liar, to those who pity her hard life, from older women with many children, to young ones about to have their first child, from a gentlewoman down to a simple farmer’s wife.

The central character is Elizabeth Luke (played by film and television star Sandra Oh), the local midwife who does not wish to see injustice occur. She has brought Sally into the world but though she doesn’t know her since, she feels that the all-male court has not given her a fair chance. On the opposite side is Mrs. Charlotte Cary, a colonel’s widow who is convinced from private knowledge that Sally is a bad one and could be guilty of any crime.

Dale Soules, Emily Cass McDonnell, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Tilly Botsford, Susannah Perkins, Haley Wong, Paige Gilbert, Simone Recasner and Nadine Malouf in a scene from Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Welkin” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

In between we have Emma Jenkins who has a grudge against Sally and Mary Middleton who just wants to get the session over with in order to get home to harvest her leeks before the daylight fades. Helen Ludlow claims she is not qualified to help decide, while Sarah Smith’s 21 children would make her an expert on childbirth. While Elizabeth has been a midwife to all the mothers, some are suspicious of her, while others think she is too sensitive and emotional. However, from what we see of her, this is very unlikely – she is as hard as nails and the logical woman in the room.

Elizabeth has fought against being empaneled with other women, claiming to be in the midst of her big washing day. She also knows that in the first months if a woman isn’t showing, there was no test in the 18th century to tell if a woman is pregnant. She is also furious at the system they live under: “she has been sentenced by men pretending to be certain of things of which they are entirely ignorant, and now we sit here imitating them, trying to make an ungovernable thing governable.” And of course, she knows whatever they decide in the case, it will still be left to the men to make the final decision.

All this is revealed in the first act, but the second act which blazes into fury (including literally with the fireplace which has not been used in years) includes secrets, revelations, betrayals and a surprise visit by the doctor (male, of course.) The several conclusions are startling and surprising and riveting in their twists and turns. The line that gets the greatest reaction is “I do think it very queer that we know more about the movement of a comet that is thousands of miles away than the workings of a woman’s body.” From some recently quoted statements by congressmen, it appears not much has changed in three hundred years.

Haley Wong, Dale Soules and Susannah Perkins in a scene from Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Welkin” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

The play begins with two scenes of male and female partnerships in 1759, one unhappily married young couple and an adulterous couple of middle age. We are also introduced to each of the women two ways: we see all of them occupied in women’s work at different tasks, and then each one tells us about herself as she is empaneled by the justice of the peace. It is a fascinating way to bring on 12 characters in a short time. There are also several times events when segue into our century as if to ask what is really different today.

The acting is superlative though not all have equally developed roles. Sandra Oh remains at the center with a layered, vigorous performance as Elizabeth Luke, the world weary midwife who is the most knowledgeable of them all. Though she doesn’t have many lines, Haley Wong’s Sally Poppy remains a hellion with a chip on her shoulder even when she is quiet and no one is addressing her, a focal point of the story.

Among the other women who stand out are Mary McCann’s gentlewoman Charlotte Cary, full of traditional advice and rules but hiding a big secret, Nadine Malouf’s biased Emma Jenkins, Dale Soules’s eccentric Sarah Smith, and Ann Harada’s Judith Brewer, a wealth of information though she is always a different temperature than the others. Glenn Fitzgerald as the bailiff who must remain in the room with the women without saying a word manages to be expressive nevertheless. Danny Wolohan demonstrates his versatility as both Sally’s abusive husband Frederick in the opening scene and the extremely compassionate and sensitive Doctor who precipitates the denouement.

Haley Wong, Sandra Oh, Dale Soules and Ann Harada in a scene from Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Welkin” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

The sets by the collective dots are very atmospheric even with few pieces of furniture or props. Kaye Voyce’s costumes and Cookie Jordan’s hair and wigs define each of the women differently and relay their character type. The lighting by Stacey Derosier beautifully modulates for the shifting moods of the play. Palmer Hefferan’s sound design is best at delineating the angry crowd outside the courthouse.

A welkin is an archaic word that means the heavens or the sky. Early on, one of the women makes the prophetic remark that the convicted murderess “must look to the Welkin. There is no earthly help for her now.” Later another woman says she has no time to look up at the sky except when hanging up laundry. Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin is one of those historical plays like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible that speaks as much to our time as to the time period of its story. It also joins other courtroom dramas like Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men and Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird which deal with a great many provocative issues and ideas, more than their plots imply.

The Welkin (through June 30, 2024)

Atlantic Theater Company

Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 29th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 646-452-2220 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (995 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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