Her Kind: The Life and Poetry of Anne Sexton
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 18, 2009
The poetry of Anne Sexton shines through Her Kind—as dark, rich, strange, and powerful as ever—but the theater piece surrounding Sexton's words, written by Hannah Wolfe, never quite comes together. It's a jumble of styles—part seeming documentary-theater piece, part faux documentary film, part poetry reading, part movement-theater (the most successful element), all held together by the awkward framing device of a flustered academic stumbling through an incompetent introductory lecture on Sexton's poetry and why undergraduates should care about it. The piece narrates the particulars of Sexton's life (a difficult childhood with an alcoholic father, a very successful poetry career alongside a failed marriage and a lifelong history of alcoholism and mental illness, several failed suicide attempts culminating in a successful one in the mid-1970s) with a surfeit of exposition and biographical detail told from outside. Sexton herself is curiously absent, brought to life most in a few disturbing stories told by her daughter Linda about Sexton's madness toward the end of her life.
It's the scholarly framing device that's the most problematic; the nervous professor becomes too much of a focus here, but without really becoming a developed character in her own right. She's a conduit, but a very obtrusive one; we don't have any idea what her investment in or connection to Sexton might be, but she takes up a great deal of the play. In addition to the scenes she narrates, she interviews on film (actors playing) Sexton's psychiatrist and the writer Erica Jong (a friend of Sexton's), adding to the expositionary weight.
The play's least literal sections are by far its most effective and evocative. Dancer and choreographer Laurel Tentindo embodies "Elizabeth," an alter ego (seemingly part conscious, part a symptom of Sexton's mental illness) of Anne's, primarily through movement. Where Anne's poetry often speaks of her discomfort in her body, Elizabeth seems freer, more physical; the relationship between the troubled poet and this dangerous yet liberating spirit is teased out in a theatrical and metaphorical way that transcends the simple chronological narration of the rest of the piece.
There is something powerful about telling the story of a suicide primarily through her absence, through the elusive threads of the people and writings she left behind (the voices of her friends, her daughter, her psychiatrist; her voice in her poetry). But the piece here feels weighed down by its sense of responsibility to the precise chronological details of Sexton's life, rather than bringing her—or those who surrounded her—to life as a theatrical character. I know more facts about Sexton than I ever did before, and I was certainly powerfully reminded of how strong and unsettling her poetry is—but the experience felt more like hearing the lecture that the play portrays than watching a piece of theater.