Fen, Caryl Churchill’s fractured 1983 feminist drama, depicts the lives of farm workers in an England where faceless multinational corporations are dicing up traditionally family-owned farmland. Threading through a collage of poetically evocative, pointedly non-naturalistic scenes – workers in the fields, at home with their families, in a bar, at a revival meeting – runs an evolving story of doomed love.
Death, if not doom, is the play’s constant theme. Val (New York newcomer Aimee Rose Ranger in a gut-wrenching performance) has left her two daughters in the care of her husband, whom we never meet, and her mother to take up with Frank, who has abandoned his own family and lives in one room with no space for the girls. They love each other, but Val remains torn about leaving her girls, though she visits them often. Along the way we’re also treated to a variety of emotionally detailed set pieces and prose-poem monologues, including tales told by old folks of times and adventures past.
A wondrously talented cast of six plays all these characters of every generation. Rudi Utter, for example, plays every male character, not just Frank, while Lauren Lubow plays one of the girls as well as a hyper-religious friend. The latter takes the despairing Val to a kind of revival meeting where Shirley (or is it one of the characters played by Annie Harper Branson? – at times it can be tough to decipher who is who and when) delivers a powerful, broken testimony about how she accepted Jesus. It’s a big speech, but just a small gesture toward redemption in a story most of whose fragments are of the sharp, suicidal kind.
The actors manage their elongated British accents pretty well for the most part, but even small imperfections in this area can make some lines hard to understand. Being unable to understand some of the lines exacerbated the occasional character confusion built into the production’s structure and frustrated me. Fortunately it didn’t happen often enough to break the cumulative spell the play cast.
Crisply directed by Patricia Lynn on an extremely minimal set, the production benefits from Marc Jablonski’s subtle sound design and Sarah Stolnack’s effective use of the scant lighting resources in the small basement space at the IATI Theater. But it’s above all the stellar acting that rockets this revival of one of Churchill’s classic works into the top tier of Off-Off-Broadway accomplishment.
This brief Red Garnet Theater Company production runs only until Feb. 21, though it deserves an extension, or better yet, a re-staging in a larger theater. Visit the Red Garnet website for tickets.