HER KIND: The Life %amp; Poetry of Anne Sexton
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
August 22, 2007
"Suicides sometimes meet..." wrote Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton in her poem "Wanting to Die," "leaving the page of the book carelessly open, / something unsaid, the phone off the hook / and the love whatever it was, an infection." She took her own life in 1974 at the age of 46 by locking herself in the garage with her car engine on.
Her death marked the last chapter of an unconventional and controversial life: she eloped with her husband-to-be while being engaged to another man, battled bipolar disorder all her life, dealt in her poems with subjects rarely touched previously in poetry—abortion, adultery, and masturbation, just to name a few. Even after her death, with the release of the tapes from her psychotherapy sessions, she continued to arouse fierce debate.
A master of probing one's inner landscape, Anne Sexton, in her "confessional poetry," achieved self-expression of the highest caliber. Even simply having it read aloud—without any theatrical treatment—this poetry can reveal itself fully and move the listeners. But theatre can add multiple layers to the imagination or, better yet, offer a collective imagining process. Hannah Wolfe and Laurel Dugan's Her Kind: The Life & Poetry of Anne Sexton does just that.
Adapted by Wolfe from Sexton's poetry, Diane Middlebrook's book Anne Sexton: A Biography, and news stories and other sources, the piece offers an ever-shifting lens through which the various facets and moments of Anne's life are nakedly displayed and keenly observed. The words burst with emotions; their power is magnified further still through the bold choices the play makes: modern dance with economical yet original movements, hauntingly beautiful music, Anne's own readings, vintage footage and dramatized film projected overhead.
What really grabbed me was the passion and commitment emanating seemingly from every pore of these two skillful performers. Wolfe plays Anne, her daughter Linda, and a teacher giving a lesson on Sexton to the audience as a class. She transitions from one role to another with ease and conviction; Sexton's magnificent poetic language comes to life through her voice. Dugan plays Anne's alter ego, Elizabeth, who is featured prominently in the disclosed psychotherapy recordings. Dugan interprets Anne's ecstasy, anguish, and struggle with dance movements so intricate that they fuse with the words.
Wolfe also co-directs with Shanara Gabrielle, and the result is a pristine and exuberant platform for Sexton's verses. And they are heart-breaking. In "Your Face on the Dog's Neck," about her longing toward her husband, Anne wrote of his eyes:
Oh, I have learned them and know that
when they open and glance at me
I will turn like a little dancer
and then, quite simply
and all by myself
I will fall.
This is a soul so tortured yet so pure that it will touch you, yet at its own center, "bound for nowhere / and everywhere."